Yesterday in Display Daily my colleague Matt Brennesholtz discussed the acquisition of Pixtronix by Qualcomm. He asked why a chip-maker would want even one (much less two) MEMS display technologies and insightfully speculated, "Perhaps Qualcomm wants to be able to offer its customers vertically integrated solutions for handsets and other mobile devices."
Here’s the rest of the story, or at least another piece of it. In late November, the Kyobo Book Centre of Korea (the country’s largest bookseller) announced the Kyobo eReader (photo), the first eReader to use Qualcomm’s mirasol color reflective MEMS display. The display appears to be the same 5.7-inch, XGA (1024 x 768) display Qualcomm MEMS Technologies (QMT) has been showing us for the last couple of years. The MSRP is the equivalent of slightly over US$300, which is solidly in tablet, not simple eReader, territory.
The Kyobo device uses a customized version of Android 2.3 and supports WiFi 802.11b/g/n. But here’s where things get interesting (and why I think Matt was so insightful yesterday). The Kyobo’s smarts come from a Qualcomm 1.0-GHz Snapdragon S2 processor. Between the mirasol display and the Snapdragon processor, Qualcomm can indeed offer the key components of a color eReader kit.
Qualcomm is still making its mirasol displays on a pilot line, so it can only support low-volume customers. Kyobo was identified as falling into that category. A high-volume plant is under construction and scheduled to ramp up in 2012.
At SID 2011, I told Qualcomm Marketing Manager Jesse Burke that the very long gestation period between the demonstration of a credible Mirasol display and the first commercial adoption was creating doubts about the technology. This was obviously not the first time Burke had to answer that question, and he had a well-prepared answer. First, he said, Qualcomm had some design wins, but before the customers could go into production, two things happened. The first was the introduction of the original iPad; the second was the continuing Great Recession. Both caused serious reconsideration of new-product introductions. In particular, many products that seemed cutting-edge before the introduction of the iPad, seemed immediately out of date afterwards.
Second, because Qualcomm only had a pilot line facility for the mirasol, the company was limited in the kind of customers it could pitch in the short term. To Burke’s credit, he told me to expect a low-volume product to appear before the end of 2011, and high-volume products to appear in 2012. With the Kyobo eReader, the first half of his prediction has come true.
Along with Matt, I don’t pretend to know how things will play out with Pixtronic and Mirasol under one roof. But I will express an opinion about relative technical merit. The Mirasol technology is devilishly clever, but it has shortcomings (such as an insufficiently saturated red that appears to be an unavoidable feature of the technology). In general, these shortcomings didn’t look all that serious two or three years ago, when the only competition was an electrophoretic technology with slow switching speed without practical color, and Mirasol’s strengths were compelling. But time moves on. To me, Pixtronix now seems to be the more compelling (and probably the more manufacturable) technology. It will be interesting to find out what Qualcomm thinks.