Whatever Happened to?…
Do you still read conventional printed newspapers? I do and I find the Sunday editions especially interesting for all the extra inserts such as the supplemental magazines, comic strips in color, and the many colorful advertising brochures. Surfing the Internet just does not create the same feel of random discovery that comes from browsing through all of this wonderful promotional material that helps pay for the rest of the paper. Two insert categories that always catch my interest are, of course, anything to do with electronics or photography.
Last Sunday, in this spirit of curious inquiry, I started to analyze what the major merchants consider to be the most important promotional features for each product category. For example, let’s take a look at laptop computers. Apparently, the most important selection criteria currently are screen size, memory, hard disk capacity, and battery life. These are listed under each and every one of the laptop computers being advertised. The other apparently important specification is the name of the Intel or AMD processor. Now, I’m not sure what the casual looker is supposed to learn from names such as: “Atom”, “Core I3”, “Phenom II Triple-Core Mobile”, and “Core I5 Processor with Turbo Boost Technology”. I suppose “Turbo Boost” must be especially good because is sounds like a really powerful car engine. The desktop computer packages similarly feature memory capacity, super-sized hard drives, and mysteriously named processors.
But wasn’t there another crucial specification that was considered of utmost importance just a few years ago? Do you remember what that was? Remember the days not so long ago when a processor with a 100 MHz clock speed was considered state-of the art? And then we had 200 MHz -- and then 500 MHz. Soon we hit the magic number of 1 GHz. Was there any end in sight? The worshipers of Moore’s law and exponential growth were predicting that we would soon have processors with 10 GHz and then 100 GHz clock speeds.
However, with my background in microwave technology, I was skeptical. I knew that life gets considerably more difficult at frequencies above 1 or 2 GHz. Signal propagation delays and impedance matching problems can overwhelm the best intentions of circuit designers. So did Moore’s law and exponential growth triumph or did we hit the wall? Well, as far as clock speeds go, we did indeed hit the wall. The faster we tried to go the hotter the processors ran. Heat and power management became critical issues. So what happened to solve the problem? We quit trying to go faster. Instead, for laptop computers, conserving battery power became more important. And for desktop computers the newest processors took a multi-core approach. The growth of clock speed followed more of an S-curve rather than an exponential. So to answer the question of “Whatever happened to…?” Well, it got good enough that it was no longer a limit to performance for the products of interest and other criteria became more important.
Similarly the pixel count in digital cameras is now approaching the “as good as needed” criteria. With 14 or 15 megapixel image capture capability there is really little more that can be accomplished by going to 20 megapixels or higher. Therefore, this performance race is also coming to an end. And again if you think back a few years, the exciting time was when the newest digital cameras had 1 or 2 megapixel imagers and were being compared to traditional film cameras for their imaging capability. At that time, I wrote a column suggesting that 2 megapixels was about all most consumer cameras needed for typical casual photography applications. This is still true today but the competitive environment pushed the pixel counts higher than most consumers will ever appreciate.
So where do we stand today with flat-panel displays? The last decade was one of major performance improvements, dramatic price reductions, and incredible growth of product shipments. We went from small computer monitors to large screen televisions. Each year brought a new generation of ever-larger screens at lower selling prices. But as with all other growth scenarios, we are reaching the limits. For most consumer use, a flat-panel television of about 50 inches in size with full HDTV resolution is about all that can be appreciated. Of course there are those who may want to go up to 60 inches of even larger. But the limits are there even for the ridiculously affluent. Anyone interested in a 100-inch television? Well, of course, there are always those few!
From these examples, we can see that we have now reached the “good enough” point in a number of product categories. But isn’t that the way it has always been? Airplanes and cars travel at about the same speeds as they did 30 or 40 years ago – (note the attached photo taken 30+ years ago). Our homes are built using many of the same materials and mostly the same methods as they were 60 or 70 years ago. Today, we wear clothing that our forefathers would have been embarrassed to be seen in. Whatever happened to those svelte jumpsuits that we saw in the science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s? Just think if you were magically transported back to the 50s and had to try to explain to your colleagues what most people wear in the 21st century in public places such as airports. Would anyone believe you that in 2011 shorts, flip-flops, and t-shirts are acceptable attire for all occasions – including dinners at upscale restaurants?
Perhaps we should think about these technology cycles as waves on the ocean. We paddle our surfboard out some distance and wait for the right wave to come along so we can catch that magical ride. Some of us are more observant or more fortunate (or some of both) to enjoy that magical ride to commercial success. But once the wave comes ashore we have to paddle out again and find a new wave to catch. In the display industry, we are at that point where the wave of large screen flat-panel televisions has peaked and we now need to find that next new wave. Certainly, wearable (portable) displays will be a good wave to ride for the next few years. And there are others such as digital signage that are just now beginning to crest. We are all like surfers who must continually adapt to the forces of nature and the marketplace. But then isn’t that what makes our ride through life so exciting and interesting?
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