Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


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Seeds of Change…July 2003

From an engineer’s perspective, it’s really quite amazing how many real-world situations are so highly non-linear. We scientists are great at observing and measuring, and then making projections based on all the data we have accumulated. But what about that proverbial "straw that breaks the camel’s back"? How do we learn about limits of materials, technology boundaries, or even the perversity of human behaviors until we encounter them? And are we sometimes misled by the comforting thoughts of "Well, it’s still working!" or "I haven’t seen any problems so far."

I am reminded of another proverb-like story that always seemed to describe a really dumb situation. The story is about a greedy farmer who decides to save money by gradually cutting back on the food for his horse — with the expectation that the horse will learn to get by on less and less. The punch line to this story is, of course, that the horse dies. I’m sure that there isn’t a farmer in the world that would be this stupid, so I have never been able to figure out why such a story would even come about. But perhaps the idea is to illustrate the workings of non-linear processes in a way that even children can understand.

Haystack Rock

But is it possible that even the most uneducated farmers are smarter than some of the folks running our major corporations these days? Allow me to present two examples for your consideration.

Example 1. For many years, AT&T has been the provider of my long distance telephone service. For at least several of those years now, I have been paying five cents per minute for all my long distance calls, and for a small additional monthly charge, I have been getting reasonable rates for overseas calls as well. Recently, they started promoting a new even cheaper plan for unlimited long distance calling. Even though I was perfectly happy with the existing situation, I decided that saving a few more dollars each month couldn’t hurt. When the next monthly bill arrived, sure enough there had been changes made. I was now being billed at $0.33 per minute! Not only had the new even-lower-cost plan not kicked in, but the old one had disappeared as well. Well, not to worry! A quick call to customer service should take care of everything. Good plan – except for one minor detail. Apparently, along with this new even-cheaper-plan some other cost-savings changes had been introduced.

As I came to experience, customer service now consisted of only a voice-responsive computer that forced me into certain categories that it thought I would find useful. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be a category for an incorrect monthly invoice. Of course not! A computer wouldn’t make such a mistake. And for the final insult, there was now no way to get out of the computer menu to get to a real person. The method I finally found to subvert the system was to continue to put in incorrect responses until the computer finally gave up and decided to transfer me to a real person. Is that the end of the story? Unfortunately, it is not. The customer service person was able to recognize the immediate problem but couldn’t tell me if the next bill would be correct. Apparently, "the computer" will not allow them to look until the end of the monthly billing cycle. A promised call back never materialized. This sad story ends with me canceling the service after many years as a steady and reliable customer. For me, apparently, the "straw that broke the camel’s back" was my inability to talk to a customer service person who could help me with an obvious problem.

Example 2. I spend a considerable number of my days each year on airplanes in travels to various clients and other display-related activities. Nearly 40 years ago, I took my first airplane flight on a United Airlines 727 -- shortly after I had commenced my graduate school studies. And I still remember that flight. It was an amazing step up from the twenty-hour bus rides between Portland and Salt Lake City. The new Boeing 727 was so much more elegant and spacious than the not-so-pristine Greyhound buses that had been my more affordable mode of transport. After I began my professional career, the airlines continued to compete on the basis of excellent service, customer comfort, and best schedules. But ever so slowly the seeds of change were planted and took root. I don’t know exactly in what order, but a number of bad things began to happen. The price of tickets became an incomprehensible jumble of mostly random numbers. Can you think of any other product that fluctuates in price by an order of magnitude for exactly the same thing? What kind of perverted marketing logic makes possible a situation where I can be sitting cramped into a middle seat near the back of a plane having paid over $2,000 for this uncomfortable experience while someone next to me in the aisle or window seat paid perhaps only $200? As we all know, food on airplanes has slowly gone from decent to less-than-decent to gone-altogether.

Customer service is disappearing as well. The airlines have almost completely abandoned the travel agent industry. Pressure is now being exerted to get all of to use computerized check-in and computerized ticketing. Then, of course, we now have to deal with the security measures that seem to change from day to day and from airport to airport. Of course, the airlines cannot be blamed for that part of the traveling experience, but nevertheless, this contributes to the unpleasantness and uncertainty of any trip. So how much further can we go? Where is the breaking point? I think we are quite close to it now. For me as a business traveler, for the first time I am beginning to look for alternate ways to spend my time and for how I can reduce the number of trips I take each year. Am I a leading indicator? Perhaps for now, most people feel that they have no other choices. But that too can change. It may take a few years for alternatives to evolve but the opportunity is there right now.

Closer to our technology world, the current struggles we are having with the daily inundation of e-mail garbage called "spam" represents another situation where we are reaching a breaking point. Unfortunately, we are only in the early stages of this rapidly growing problem as well as our ability to react to it. This problem will get fixed or we will come up with other, perhaps even more, innovative solutions. In the meantime, maybe more of us will go back to using the telephone.

What about the seeds of change in our display industry? Is there a current example of a highly non-linear situation? I believe there is. In the last one to two years, many of us have been surprised by the rapid growth of flat panel displays. For much of the previous decade, we projected a slow conversion of CRTs to flat panels, beginning first with computer monitors and then later making modest inroads into small-screen televisions. All of these projections were based on when prices for flat panels would approach those of CRTs. It didn’t really happen that way at all, did it? Once the perception developed among casual users that there were "these great new flat panel technologies" out there that "clearly must be better than the traditional old-fashioned and bulky CRTs", cost became a mostly secondary consideration. By word-of-mouth and with encouragement from the vendors, the perception grew that to stay current in technology one simply must have a flat-panel display. The move to flat-panel monitors and more recently to televisions, therefore, happened faster than we could have projected using engineering logic. The sensitivity to price was apparently far less important than the data was able to show.

The next display market that is likely to follow this same non-linear growth pattern will be the one for large-screen televisions. Today, we are experiencing just the beginning phases of this accelerating consumer enthusiasm. Soon this wave-of-change will hit us full force. The good news is that this will present many new opportunities for those of us developing new display technologies for projection or large-screen direct-view systems.

The bad news is that it is causing the unnecessarily rapid drop off of development activity in CRTs. This is unfortunately an example of non-linear behavior in the opposite direction. The untimely demise of this technology is being encouraged by the growing perception that it is already dead. However, the situation could stabilize, and if it does, we may see some renewed or at least continued activity. Perhaps there will be some similarity to the battle between film and digital photography. Film has been able to maintain a viable position by finding new opportunities in disposable cameras and as an adjunct to digital photography. Therefore, it is possible that in the display industry we could end up with both CRTs and flat panels for still years to come. On a global scale, it is way too soon for the CRT industry to self-destruct.

What do you think is in our future? What seeds of change do you see being planted? I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic and others. You may contact me via this web site, at Email, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727. 425-898-1727.