The Future of Plasma, Post-Pioneer

In February of 2009, Pioneer announced that it had decided to close its plasma-display TV production facilities as part of restructuring measures to offset current and future losses. Furthermore, the company announced that it was withdrawing from the display business altogether by March 2010. These announcements surprised many in the display industry because Pioneer is known for its state-of-the art plasma products and had only a year earlier introduced its new Kuro line of plasma TVs. Kuro technology features vibrant imagery and extremely deep blacks ("kuro" means black in Japanese) that favorably impressed many early reviewers.

With a key player such as Pioneer exiting the plasma arena, the question of whether other companies might follow naturally arises. A related issue with regard to plasma's general longevity is that LCDs have rapidly been catching up to the technology in terms of cost and performance.

But, in fact, Pioneer's departure from the display market means less than it might at first seem, according to plasma-expert Larry Weber. (Weber was co-founder of the former Plasmaco. Inc., one of the earliest developers of large-screen plasma displays.) First, he says, "The key announcement [with regard to Pioneer] happened last year, not this year." That was when Panasonic began making plasma panels for Pioneer units, which signaled an end to Pioneer's panel manufacturing even as the company was coming out with new products.

And, Weber continues, although Pioneer made excellent products; in terms of sales, the company was historically the weakest of the "big" plasma players, including LG, Panasonic, and Samsung. "Pioneer's strategy was to sell very-high-quality displays at a high price," he says. That was a strategy that worked to a point, but may have been harder to sustain in the economic environment of the last couple of years.



Kuro displays turned heads when they debuted slightly over a year ago. Shown is a concept model at a trade show. Image courtesy of Pioneer.


However, even if Pioneer was only a small part of the plasma industry, it was a highly visible part. And with rapid advances in LCD technology that are making it an ever-more viable rival to plasma, are plasma's days numbered? It is too early to count plasma out, according to Weber, and Panasonic spokes-person Jeff Samuels speaks in similar terms: "Panasonic still strongly believes in plasma," he says. "And we make LCDs too." In fact, he adds, "Of the major players, Sony is the only one not in plasma."

No one questions that LCDs are getting bigger, better, and more cost-effective. But at Panasonic, at least, there is still a break-off point in terms of screen size: "Our position is that if you are buying a display larger than 42 in., you should go for plasma rather than LCD," says Samuels. The biggest consumer plasma TV that Panasonic makes is 65 in., but the company also produces professional-level products as large as 103 in. These are purchased by sports arenas, restaurants, and hotels – and a few discriminating and financially well-off individuals, such as professional athletes. (Asked if Panasonic is going to acquire Pioneer's Kuro technology, and thus bolster the plasma expertise it already possesses, Samuels says, "Everybody asks that. We don't know.")

Plasma TVs also tend to handle motion better than LCDs, Samuels maintains, and are better at showing dark content (think The Matrix) as well as at showing most content in dark environments. LCDs do have the advantage over plasma in bright environments such as a sunny room.

However, on a consumer level, plasma has had several factors working against it: plasma displays have generally been heavier than LCDs (so may need extra wall support) and have conventionally been more difficult and expensive to install. They also, under some circumstances, consume more power (although this is changing). Weber notes that one of plasma's best features – its ability to display imagery in darkened environments – has often been rendered invisible when the displays are shown in a brightly lit store.


"Pioneer's strategy was to sell very-high-quality displays at a high price."

– Larry Weber, co-founder, Plasmaco Inc.


People have been saying that plasma is on the way out for years, according to Weber. But for now, he maintains, it not only still has its place but is continuing to evolve – much as LCD technology is evolving as well.

—Jenny Donelan



Seiko Epson and Sony Discuss LCD Businesses Alliance

Seiko Epson Corp. and Sony Corp. have begun discussions about an alliance in the field of small- and medium-sized liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), including the transfer of a part of business assets of Epson to Sony. The companies plan to enter into a legally binding definitive agreement by the end of June 2009.

To date, Epson Imaging, a subsidiary of Epson, has implemented a series of restructuring measures in its small- and medium-sized LCD business. At the same time, it has been working to shift its product portfolio toward developing original high-definition and ultra-wide-viewing-angle technologies based on its amorphous-silicon TFT and low-temperature-polysilicon (LTPS) TFT technologies. An alliance with Sony would enable Epson Imaging's LCD technology and amorphous-silicon TFT production capability to be more fully utilized.

According to an analysis piece on (http://www.tradingmarkets. com/.site/news/Stock%20News/2221235/), Seiko is pursuing the business in order to shore-up efforts to compete with its South Korean and Taiwanese LCD rivals. A major weakness of Seiko Epson's LCD business, the article claims, is that Seiko Epson itself does not manufacture products that use LCD panels. In Sony, Seiko Epson would have a reliable customer for these panels because Sony makes a range of devices such as mobile phones that use them.

On its part, Sony is focusing on LTPS-TFTs for its small- and medium-sized LCD business. In order to accelerate the development and commercialization process, it is also consolidating its resources within its subsidiary, Sony Mobile Display Corp., which will result in a unified operation containing development, design, and production. Through the contemplated alliance, Sony says it aims to increase the competitiveness of its small- and medium-sized LCD business by incorporating Epson's wide range of technologies; in particular, Epson Imaging's amorphous-silicon TFT technology and LCD product designs and production capabilities.

According to analyst Paul Semenza, Senior Vice President with DisplaySearch, there is no one obvious underlying motivation for the projected alliance. A variety of factors may be at work. First, "Sony is looking for the next Trinitron," he says. And if Sony, which has been developing OLED as the future TV technology, wanted to expand its presence in OLEDs into mobile devices, the new TFT capabilities from Epson might bolster Sony's OLED as well as its LCD development. Or, Sony may just be looking to add to its LCD technology. Or, for both companies, he says, "Part of it may just be ongoing consolidation."