I am the first to admit that I have been bearish on plasma HDTVs. The rising tide of LCD has steadily eroded plasma’s market share, taking over larger and larger segments until we have reached the point where LCD owns the flat panel market below 50”, and is threatening to take over the 50” to 60” segment. Philips has announced plans to drop plasma from their lines everywhere but North America. LG Electronics will close the oldest of its four plasma fabrication plants. It seems that the only optimistic sign in the market is the fact that Matsushita — parent company of Panasonic — is going to double down on its plasma bet and build an enormous new plant; is this an act of desperation or do they know something we don’t know?
Well, already this week at the Society for Information Display conference in Long Beach, CA, I’ve found a couple of data points that may make me rethink my ideas about the future of plasma HDTVs.
First, Ross Young of DisplaySearch alluded to a technological development that will increase the light output per watt of a plasma panel by three or four times the current levels. This could result in lowering production costs by as much as one third. This means that a panel that costs $1,800 today could sell for $1,200 and maintain the same profit margin percentages for manufacturers and retailers. Such a price drop could do wonders for the unit sales of plasma HDTVs, and put pressure on LCD HDTV prices for a change. According to Ross, we’re about two years away from mass production of this new plasma panel architecture.
An even more significant development was on display at the DuPont booth. The company has developed a Transfer Materials Technology — TMT — that can be used to create the barrier ribs in a plasma panel. These are the physical elements that divide the vertical lines of the panel and define the horizontal pixels. This new process can make ribs with a pitch as small as 20 microns. This is more than small enough to easily create 1080p resolution in a 42” panel, and the process actually is simpler and more environmentally friendly than traditional processes. This development could result in plasma HDTVs with true 1080p resolution, which will be essential for plasma to continue to compete effectively against true 1080p LCD HDTVs.
Will these new advances be enough to save plasma HDTVs from being sandwiched by LCD and rear projection models? It depends on whether or not they can actually deliver the predicted cost savings and resolution improvement, but if they can, they stand a good chance to claw some of the market share back from LCD.