Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


The Display Continuum

Technology Momentum…

One of my memorable experiences from the time I spent in Princeton was standing on the platform at the Princeton Junction train station and watching the Amtrak Metroliner trains come blasting by at full speed.  The platform at Princeton Junction is quite close to the tracks so one gets to experience the full effect of a massive locomotive going roughly a hundred miles per hour.  The Shinkansen trains in Japan also produce this same sensation of unbridled power as they hurtle through stations just a few inches from the platform. 

Momentum is defined as mass times velocity.   A large locomotive has plenty of mass and at one hundred miles per hour it also has considerable velocity.  Our brains seem to have an innate ability to make the momentum calculation.  Each time I would watch one of these trains hurtle past, I would instinctively imagine how a bug must feel just before encountering the windshield of a car going at freeway speeds.

So how should we interpret the title of this month’s column – technology momentum?  And why might we find it important to understand the implications of this concept? 

In applying the concept of momentum to a discussion of technology, the equivalent of “mass” is the size of any existing enterprise or institution, and the equivalent of “velocity” is the rate of change in any given technology.   The larger an existing enterprise is and the faster it is moving, the more difficult it becomes to disrupt its success.  And if the existing enterprise is supported by a massive infrastructure, then it does not even have to move all that fast in order to have virtually unstoppable technology and business momentum. 

Consider, for example, the competition between Silicon and GaAs in the semiconductor business.  For many years, it was predicted that GaAs would provide stiff competition for Silicon-based products in any application requiring high-speed signal processing.  However, GaAs never became a mainstream technology even for these applications.  The Silicon infrastructure was so massive that nearly every product that the GaAs technologists brought to market was soon eclipsed by the more powerful silicon technology base.  The GaAs technologists could never achieve a high enough technology change “velocity” to overcome the more massive resources of the silicon infrastructure. 

Today we are experiencing the same phenomenon in software development.  While we have all evolved to using our computers as primarily communication devices, we see Microsoft bringing yet another fancier version of Windows to market that is of little practical use to most of us.  Yet the revenue stream continues to grow for Microsoft because this huge speeding train is just about unstoppable.  It will take a further major revolution in computer usage before this train derails.  Certainly such derailments have happened in the past.  Consider for example Wang and DEC.   Each was a successful company until what they had to offer was replaced by a new capability that made them obsolete.  We can of course add many other examples such as Polariod, the film business at Kodak, and what is currently happening to CRTs.

Applying the concept of technology momentum, we can see that what finally caused the massive existing technologies to be replaced were new technologies that came along offering new developments at a faster pace or capabilities that the existing technologies simply could not address.   An early hint that CRTs would not always be the dominant display technology came when the first laptop computers appeared with LCD monochrome screens -- with poor contrast and slow response.  Even thought they were markedly inferior to CRTs in image quality, they represented the only way to achieve the desired portability.

Now, suppose that you are a clever inventor with a new idea for a superior display device.  Let’s say that you have demonstrated in your laboratory that you can bring to market a superior large-screen television.  Your preliminary estimates show that it will also be cheaper to produce products based on your idea than the current crop of large LCDs and Plasma panels.  What are your chances of success? 

Unfortunately, not very good.  The existing companies making large-screen televisions are multi-billion-dollar enterprises.  Supporting them is an equally large infrastructure of production equipment suppliers.  All this represents a massive worldwide business infrastructure.  Not only that, the progress in improving image quality and driving costs down continues to be rapid.  So the momentum of these combined organizations is truly awesome.  In order to overcome this huge existing technology momentum, your tiny organization of a few engineers would need to have near speed-of-light velocity.  This would mean that what you have invented must be truly revolutionary.  An improvement of a few factors of two or even an order of magnitude may not be enough. 

Of course one possible solution could be to approach one of these large enterprises to see if they would like to license your idea.  That may work if you do it with some care.  A less desirable outcome could be that they simply implement your idea and then use their near-infinite resources to make it difficult and very expensive for you to obtain legal relief. 

This technology momentum can be scary stuff – just as scary as watching that massive train suddenly hurtling past just a few inches from the platform where you are standing.  On the other hand, just as it is important to be standing on the platform and not on the tracks when this event takes place, it is important to understand the dynamics of these technology-based businesses.

In the worldwide display community, we are currently in a period of massive manufacturing build-up of both LCD and Plasma technologies.  We are also beginning to see the first hints of serious efforts to bring OLED technology to market.  Since this new OLED effort is originating from some of the larger companies, they have what it takes to create the momentum to make this a potential success.  They have the “mass” in terms of resources and OLED technology is demonstrating good “velocity” in how critical problems are being solved.  As an emissive technology for portable devices, OLEDs may have a number of interesting features to offer. 

The next ten years look very promising for these and several other display technologies.  The momentum is definitely there to carry us along at a fast pace.  The interesting challenge will be to see if any smaller and more entrepreneurial efforts can generate sufficient velocity to succeed in this world of massive and dominant corporations.     

As always I would enjoy hearing your opinions on this topic and others.