And the Answer is…

October 3rd, 2007

"What was the single most important event in touch in mobile displays in 2007," asked Geoff Walker, the principle consultant at Walker Mobile in the opening session of the SID Mobile Display Conference being held this week in San Diego. The answer, of course, is the Apple iPhone. But judging by the interest in touch screens exhibited at the event, he should have dropped the "touch" part of his question. Indeed, the multi-point touch screen on the Apple iPhone may be the most important event in mobile displays in 2007.

Chris Chinnock
Senior Analyst and Editor
for Insight Media

When Walker asked who in the audience owned an Apple iPhone, he got perhaps 6 yeses. There were 3-4 more who owned cell phones with a touch screen that were not iPhones - about 10 people in a crowd of perhaps 175 people. What was not said explicitly, but which seems clear, is that a year from now there will be a flood of mobile handsets available with touch screens. The Apple iPhone has created a stampede of activity to offer me-too products that should have long lasting repercussions for years beyond the mobile handset market.

At the center of the activity is the projected capacitive touch technology that Apple uses in the iPhone. The technology has been around for some time and has been used on ATMs, kiosks and other applications for years. But Apple is the first to apply it to a mobile handset and its success has certainly propelled the technology to a new level of interest.

"Within the last year, I know of 6-12 new companies that are now pursing projected capacitive touch technology," said Walker. "That’s because there is relatively little relevant controlling IP on this technology, thus the barriers to entry are quite low."

Apple chose the touch technology to overcome shortcomings with other approaches such as poor durability and low optical clarity. Plus, it supports multi-touch, and a manufacturing team (Balda/TPK/Optera) established a high volume manufacturing line to support Apple.

But the display/touch screen module in the Apple iPhone is not cheap. Walker and iSuppli both showed tear down analyses of the iPhone, which pointed out the high cost of the display/touch solution - about $50. That’s probably twice the cost of a display with 4-wire resistive touch screen.

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"And everyone I talk to says their interests are not based on economics," he told me after his presentation. I suspect the reasons for the interest vary, but probably boils down to the fact that the multi-touch screen creates a new use model that others want to emulate and, in fact, need to have in their product lines.

In reality, resistive touch screen technology will actually eclipse sales of projected capacitive in 2007. But how well it does after that is a matter of some debate. For example, Walker compared the forecasts for touch-enabled mobile handsets from iSuppli and Strategy Analytics.

The iSuppli forecast shows that by 2009, only 18% (12M) of the touch-enabled mobile handsets will use the projected capacitive technology, with the rest being resistive touch. The Strategy Analytics forecast shows just the opposite - by 2009, 87% (163M) of the touch-enabled mobile handsets will be capacitive touch. Walker called the iSuppli forecast too conservative and the Strategy Analytics forecast too aggressive.

Consequently, he offered his own take. He sees projected capacitive touch screens overtaking resistive screens in cell phones by 2009, rising to about 72M units. If you add in another 45M handsets with resistive touch screens, then about 10% of all mobile phones will have a touch screen (117M units).

His forecast drew a response from the iSuppli analyst, Vinita Jakhanwal, who asked why Walker thinks there will be 16M projected capacitive touch screens shipped in 2007. Jakhanwal noted that their forecast is based almost exclusively on iPhone shipments and they are expecting 4M in sales.

Walker admitted this number was aggressive, but thinks other suppliers will come on line before the end of the year. "This is a touch screen forecast, not a handset forecast, so there will be a time lag for these numbers to show up in cell phone sales," he explained. "In addition, 3M has been shipping 750K/month projected capacitive touch screens to an unnamed Asia company since last June," continued Walker. "That’s nearly 10M additional units in 2007, right there."

It is curious to see how touch screens, a non-display technology, can command such attention at a display conference. We will have complete coverage in the next edition of Mobile Display Report.

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