Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Out With the Old…May 2003

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Digital cameras are in! Film cameras are old fashioned. LCD computer monitors represent great new technology! CRT monitors are obsolete. PDP TVs are glamorous! Large-screen CRT TVs and projection sets are lower priced compromises. The new technologies must be incredibly better to cause such dramatically rapid shifts in consumer buying patters. Right? Are we sure about that?

Digital cameras do some things better than their film-based counterparts. For example, we can do short video clips. We can also choose which images to save and which ones to discard. We can do test images before we make the one we wish to keep. We are able to download and e-mail our photos to friends and family almost instantly. But film continues to represent an incredibly efficient and versatile long-term storage medium. Each set of negatives or transparencies can be stored in a viewable plastic sheet no larger than a standard piece of paper. For a few dollars, including the film processing, each page provides us with over one gigabyte of read-only storage capacity. And no matter how the digital formats and digital imaging media change in the future, we will always be able to directly view the information on these pieces of film. Of course, depending on the film selected, there may be some gradual long-term degradation of the images. But the digital media are not immune to this either. They too are susceptible to changes and deterioration. If not stored and handled with some care, these failures could be catastrophic. It may require periodic re-recording to avoid such problems and to keep up with whatever changes occur in digital media over the coming decades – will we still be using 3-1/2" floppy disks ten years from now?

Haystack Rock

Therefore, it seems to me that instead of trying to force consumers to choose between film and digital photography, it would be better if we had more products that facilitate the use of both, and the conversion from one to the other. Film scanners are available, but they are slow with limited preview capability. Why not have an analog preview mode that allows the presentation of images from negatives or slides instantly on our computer screens? Then, after pre-selecting the images we want to digitize, the slower digital scans would not be so frustrating. And why not have a convenient method for converting digital images to film? If nothing else, that would be a great way to back up the digital data. Wouldn’t this represent a more useful example of technology convergence than gluing LCD screens onto refrigerator doors?

LCD technology made the laptop computer possible. But what is behind the recent and still growing shift to LCD screens for the desktop? I have several desktop systems in my office with LC displays up to 17-inches in size, and two computers with high-end flat-faced CRTs. Especially for imaging applications, I still find the CRTs to be better. And even the sales personnel in most computer stores will tell you that for games and for imaging, CRT displays are superior. So why are we all buying those "great new flat-panel displays"? They’re certainly not cheaper. Are we so terribly concerned about space utilization? I think not. The answer is most likely one of customer expectations that are not all that carefully researched or tested during the buying "experience". Once a technology begins to catch on, its popularity can extend way beyond what is rational. The buying decisions are no longer made based on real need, on measurable performance features, on demonstrated quality, or on overall value. Just as most of us don’t have a justifiable need for a 2 GHz computer (that actually runs at only a few hundred megahertz for most operations), so we buy flat panel displays because they represent "the best and newest technology".

The same thing is happening currently with the buying patterns for large-screen televisions. In the US, we are seeing a major trend developing that will be accelerating over the next few years for virtually all homes to have some kind of large-screen entertainment center. Plasma panels are considered the newest technology and, therefore, "must be the best". I suppose one reaction from those of us in the display industry might be – that’s great! The more new technology we can create and the more excitement we can generate – no matter how irrational – is going to be good for the industry. And mostly, I think, this is not such a bad idea. My only reservation is that this exuberance for the latest and newest FPD technologies may harm the existing direct-view CRT and projection-based product sales to the point where manufacturers will no longer be willing to support improvements in these technologies and will phase out production prematurely. In other words, the new will drive out the old simply because of market momentum. If the CRT can still produce a superior image, for some applications at least, and can do this for an attractive price, why should it see a premature demise?

If that happens, that will indeed be a sad outcome. Unfortunately, from what I am being told by several of the major CRT manufacturers, that is currently a likely scenario. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that there will be a continued consolidation within the CRT industry and a realization by enough knowledgeable consumers that the CRT has benefits that make it sufficiently interesting to keep it a viable technology for some years to come. Since anyone reading this column should be in the "knowledgeable" user category, what are your thoughts? Are you happy with your new LCD desktop monitor for all of your applications or are you still a dedicated CRT user? Is it possible that we will see a modest backlash of buying preferences or a slowing of the conversion from CRTs to LCD panels? There is some evidence of that for film vs. digital. While digital camera sales are still growing, the usage of film is not decreasing. One reason for this is that film has recently found a new growth market with vacation travelers buying disposable cameras. Is there going to be something similar to this for displays? Having one technology become too dominant will, I think, not be as interesting to those of us in the display industry as if we can sustain a broader diversity of these technologies.

As always, I would appreciate hearing your opinions on this topic and others. Please contact me by e-mail at Email, by telephone at 425-557-8850, or by fax at 425-557-8983.