Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



The Four Minute Mile...July 2001

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Some years ago, after completing graduate school and settling into my professional career, I decided that I should add some physical activity to my otherwise sedentary lifestyle. The specific motivation was a week long camping trip to the Yosemite Valley and the realization that my hiking and climbing abilities were not nearly what I wanted them to be. Thus, I selected an exercise program that was intended to build my aerobic capabilities by gradually increasing the distance walked/jogged while reducing the time required to cover that distance -- more commonly known as "getting in shape." The stated goal was to be able to run a distance of one-and-a-half miles in under twelve minutes after three months of training.

During the first week, I walked a mile each day in about twenty minutes. The second week, the times dropped to about sixteen minutes. The third week, I tried adding some jogging and the times dropped to about twelve minutes. The following week, I increased the distance to one-and-a-half miles and kept the pace about the same. Without too much pushing, I was able to achieve my interim eighteen-minute target. This was beginning to look like a really easy project. In no time at all, I should be meeting the twelve-minute objective.

Getting from eighteen minutes to fifteen took a few more weeks and a little more effort, but I still felt that I was pretty much on track. But, after that, it got a lot harder. Over the next several months my enthusiasm wavered and with a few business trips to break the intended routine, my diligence evaporated. Suddenly, there were all kinds of good excuses for why I couldn't find time to do the daily runs.

It was not until more than a year later that I once again decided to try this activity on a sustained basis. However, this time I knew that whatever goals I set the results would not come easily. Fortunately, for this second effort, I also had the additional motivation of participating in a youth soccer league as a coach and referee. Over the next few years, not only did I gain the ability to run the mile-and-a-half in twelve minutes, but I was able to increase my conditioning to consistently run five miles at a pace of less than seven minutes per mile.

Is there a four minute mile in my future? I think you and I both know the answer to that. However, what has been an unexpected result is that even now, after many years, I continue to be able to run eight to ten miles at a decent pace on a near-regular basis.

If we were to graph my rate of improvement, from the first efforts of walking a mile in twenty minutes to my eventual capabilities, there would be a clear asymptote to this graph. In addition, there would be gaps of no progress and even steps backward.

It seems to me that new technology developments and getting new products to market follow quite the same behavior. The early stages of concept demonstration are much easier than the subsequent challenges of creating cost-effective and profitable products that meet the unforgiving competitive demands of an international marketplace.

Perhaps, the recently much-maligned businesses are an illustrative example of this. Following their model (and exaggerating only slightly), we would start an internet-based business and sell 27" name-brand television sets for $50 each to "establish a customer base and capture market share." Once we had this large customer base, we would then gradually raise prices to get to profitability. Of course, raising prices to $100, then to $150, and then to $200 would continue to prove that customers still flocked to our site. But to get to profitability, we would need to charge $300 or more. However, that is now the same price for which our customers can buy the set at any other site or traditional discount store. At that point, life for our company gets very challenging. While, it was relatively easy to raise prices and thereby to reduce our quarterly losses from several hundred million dollars to maybe just fifty million or so, from there to profitability is like becoming a four-minute mile runner. Only a few can hope to accomplish it. And the process is similarly asymptotic.

The traditional stores -- especially the discount warehouses -- may even have some inherent advantages. The customer does the work of picking the items from the shelves, the shopping cart and the car trunk are the no-cost shipping containers, the drive home provides transportation of the goods for free, and returning or exchanging a misbehaving product is easy. If companies providing home milk delivery services several decades ago, couldn't stay in business, why should a grocery store have any more success today?

The story with new technology is similar. How many press releases have we seen of new display technologies that are going to "leap-frog" existing products? How many news reports have we read of great new and "revolutionary" displays based on a new type of light-emission or light-modulation capability -- illustrated by a companion photo of a one-inch-square single-pixel display in a barely-visible green or orange color? And how many announcements have we read of the great progress being made that, when linearly extrapolated, will soon lead to commercial success? To get from these early demonstrations to profitable products is again not too different from achieving that ability to run the four-minute mile. Many would like to do it, but few actually succeed.

I suppose that sometimes such high optimism is simply due to the exuberance (or lack of experience) of the participants, but just as often I suspect the drive behind such overly optimistic announcements is the need to meet investors' expectations, or to try to live up to the early promises made to those investors.

Is there any hope for those of us who most likely will not be able to achieve the technological equivalent of the four-minute mile, and would prefer not to make such promises to keep our careers on track? I believe there is. Instead of aspiring to run at a pace that is not realistic, why not accept a realistic goal of running five (or maybe even ten) miles at a seven-minute-per-mile pace? That is still darn good and way above what most people are able to do. And if it can be sustained for many years, then that can be a path to long-term success and survival -- a sustainable and profitable business.

Therefore, suppose we retain our enthusiasm, and seek to develop innovative new display technologies, but that we insist on being more realistic about how much immediate market impact those technologies will have. Any new technology needs time (typically more than ten years) for all the details to be worked out, for full performance capability to be developed, and for reliability to be proven -- especially if new materials are involved. Thus, an entry point needs to be found where modest production volumes are acceptable and where it is not necessary to immediately compete with well-established technologies such as CRTs and LCDs. One market segment where such an opportunity currently exists, for example, is in electronic advertising.

Perhaps it will continue to be necessary to dangle the promises of leap-frog technologies and revolutionary breakthroughs in order to attract investors' attention. However, within the display community, we can temper these claims with the balanced perspective of knowing how technologies really develop and how they eventually lead to successful products -- and to profitable businesses.

Should you wish to support or challenge my comments with your own experiences in introducing new display technologies, I would very much like to hear from you. You can reach me by e-mail at Email or, by telephone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.