The End of Glass, Vacuum & Metal Technology

Usually, I like to write my editorials in the early morning on press day. I like to get them written while I’m fresh and before I have really started my day. This week is an exception as I am in Orlando for the Display Summit and Infocomm, and the time difference means that I am having to write at the end of a long day of meetings and trade show chat. This is the first Infocomm that I have personally attended for about ten years and this year, the big themes have been direct view LED displays and lasers for projectors.

Both of these represent what my friend, Paul Gray, now of IHS, once described to me as “the end of glass, vacuum and metal technology”. What he meant by this is that the silicon transistor replaced the glass, vacuum and metal technology of valves (or vacuum tubes as our Western readers will know them). LCD, and to a lesser extent OLED, has replaced the venerable CRT – the dominant technology for more than 100 years, and now LED lights in general lighting are replacing incandescent and fluorescent lamps. In projection, the UHP lamps are being replaced with LEDs and lasers.

The huge investment in LEDs for general and automotive lighting and also for LCD backlights has led to a huge boom in LED development and production volumes. That in turn has fuelled the R&D that drives Haitz’s law – the LED equivalent of Moore’s law. LEDs get better and better very rapidly and (I hate to admit this), I was surprised to see a slide at the Display Summit that suggested that the crossover in purchase cost between a high end 55″ ultra-narrow bezel video wall LCD and an LED display was at around 3.5mm pitch.

Now, not so long ago, a 3.5mm pitch LED video wall was the province of the exotic end of the market. In 2003, we reported that Barco had a new state of the art 3mm pitch LED wall that cost €108,000 per square metre. That has now shrunk by a factor of almost 10, to around €10,700 according to data from Panasonic, presented at Display Summit this week. That’s what happens when things change to semiconductor development cycles!

As a consequence of this dramatic price shift, everybody, but everybody (well, almost everybody) at Infocomm who sells LCDs was either showing LEDs or talking of selling them. I suspect the market will split between very low cost (mainly mainland Chinese) brands and a few brands that can offer the sales and support systems needed to support really high quality installations. As usual, I suspect that if you are stuck in the middle, being not really cheap or superbly good, it will be very difficult to make money. I often refer to the “smile curve” that was always said to show that money can be made by being the best or the cheapest, but not by being neither. Not all those that are entering the market will succeed and there will, I suspect, be casualties.

Meanwhile, buyers and display users will get some great products – we plan to bring you our full report next week.

I’ll finish by just drawing your attention to a significant point. This week, on the 17th to be precise, the ITU agreement said that analogue switch off of TV was due to be completed. The aim of this was to eliminate cross-border interference between analogue and digital broadcast systems. Almost all of Europe has completed by the due date, but parts of Africa are a long way behind. Check for a full list at