Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Low Hanging Fruit…February 2005

Some years ago in a business development meeting with a Senior VP, it was suggested to me that in order to accomplish the short term financial results that the company needed, I should be focusing my energies on “finding low hanging fruit”. What this apparently meant was that I should be searching for those opportunities that would be quick to materialize and would not take much effort or resources to bring in. My unspoken reaction to this directive was: “Right… And just where do you think I am going to find this ‘low hanging fruit’?” Not too long after that, a new business opportunity came my way that allowed me to depart gracefully – never having found any of this easy-picking fruit than my boss seemed to think was so plentiful.

However, I have never forgotten his comment and whenever a situation arises where someone is looking for an easy path to business success I find it hard not to ask them where and how they expect to find the elusive “low hanging fruit”. It seems to me that such easy pickings don’t exist today and perhaps never did. Can you think of any successes in display technology that didn’t take extraordinary effort and dedication to accomplish? I sure can’t seem to find them in the significant technologies that are currently seeing the fastest growth. Let’s look at a few examples.

Liquid crystal displays started their difficult path to success back in the mid-60s. There were plenty of reasons why they might not succeed. Contrast was low, the response time was insufficient for video, the viewing angle was terrible, and they were too temperature sensitive for many applications. Even when TFT technology began to be applied, the industry consensus was that we would never have LCDs larger than about 20-inches. Anyone looking for low-hanging fruit in this technology area would have given up many years ago. Is this an example of atypical serendipity? Well then, for comparison let’s take a look at plasma technology.

Plasma panels also started their path to eventual success in the late 60s. And it seems to me that the road to success was no easier, and perhaps even more challenging, than for LC technology. At least LCs had the small-display market (with segmented and passive products) to rely on as a motivator for ongoing development. The challenge for plasma was that a monochrome display in a neon-orange color is not something that has a wide range of interesting applications. IBM was able to get a few products to market that had modest success in the banking industry for teller transaction terminals. The compactness of these flat-panel terminals over ones made with the traditional CRT was of some commercial value in this limited market. But achieving a useful color display proved to be a major challenge until 1994 when Fujitsu and Noritake solved the technical problems with the invention of the three-electrode AC panel using a ribbed back-plane. This breakthrough development encouraged other innovations and in the next few years we witnessed the rapid introduction of products that could compete with the traditional CRT for picture quality and could provide the larger sizes that direct-view CRTs could not. Prices were still very high by CRT standards but at least the technology was proving its capability to deliver commercially useful products.

There were more times than we would now like to admit that nearly every effort to develop plasma technology came close to (or was) cancelled either through management decisions or because funding for projects ran out before success could be demonstrated. It took extraordinary dedication by a few engineers and scientists in companies large and small for this technology to finally become the business success that it is today. These dedicated pioneers, who struggled through these challenges -- sometimes at great risk to their careers, I think would not appreciate their efforts characterized as having picked “low hanging fruit”.

Another, perhaps more recent, example is the TI micro-mirror display, known as the DLP. It has become the display of choice for many front-projection systems. However, it too had a rocky path to success. It did not even start out as a display technology and even when the display potential was recognized there were skeptics who claimed that it would never be “good enough” or cheap enough. Performance issues such as motion artifacts, color break-up, and the “window screen” effect were considered serious performance limitations. While it may not be the lowest cost projection technology, it has proven to be capable of creating products that are compact, efficient, and produce bright images suitable for many applications. But was the path to success direct and obvious? Not from what I have read and heard.
What about some of the newer display technologies that are not quite as far along as LCDs, Plasma panels, and DLP projectors? Can we perhaps see some “easy answers” among those? Two of the more recent display technologies being explored are FEDs and OLEDs. So far FEDs for sure have had an especially difficult path. The few attempts to introduce commercial products have not succeeded. It will be very interesting to see what happens with the Canon/Toshiba effort to commercialize the SED approach. If it succeeds, the engineers at Canon and Toshiba will deserve great credit for perseverance against tremendous odds.

OLED technology has also encountered significant challenges in spite of the potential benefits. The differential aging of the emitting materials and the new manufacturing methods needed to assure reliable products may or may not yield to adequate solutions. Success is especially difficult to assure when fundamental materials issues have to be resolved. Remember how promising inorganic EL displays looked until years of development efforts could not produce a blue phosphor of adequate brightness? Such challenges can, over time, stymie the introduction of what otherwise might have been really interesting products.

The more we look, the more it seems that the expectation of finding “low hanging fruit” is mostly the wishful thinking of those driven by the need to demonstrate short term financial results. The reality is that success only comes to those who are willing to make extraordinary efforts and to continue to work when almost everyone else has given up. And even then, only a few will come away having tasted a modicum of success knowing that they were able to make a useful contribution to the well-being of their companies and to the greater display community. Are you ready to take on such a challenge? Or would you rather go in search of “low hanging fruit”?
I welcome your comments on this topic and others. You may reach me directly from this web site, by e-mail at Email, by phone 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.