Display Wars

Large-screen flat panel displays are increasingly catching the eyes of IT vendors and integrators, and not just because of their spectacular images.

With prices falling over the last 12 months companies see their potential for a range of uses from offices, where they’d be valued for saving space

over rear-projection TVs, to trade shows, where space and shipping weight are at an even greater premium.

This year, a Canadian company hopes to start shouldering its way into this hotly-competitive world that’s dominated by Asian manufacturers.

iFire Technology Inc. of Toronto plans to show off a 34-inch prototype display, based on what it says is its proprietary process called thick film dielectric technology (TDEL), at the Society for Information Display conference in Seattle in May.

So far it has produced 17-inch test panels, but last month the company announced it had scaled one up to 34 inches, claiming it to be the largest flat panel produced using inorganic electroluminescent technology. Supported in part by investments and manufacturing capabilities from Japanese partners, iFire hopes to license the technology to major manufacturers who’ll start selling units in two years.

“”We will be transitioning from research and development to looking at commercialization in 2004,”” said Anthony Johnston, iFire’s president. To confirm the viability of the process for large-scale displays, it will build a pilot facility before moving to volume manufacturing in 2005. Commercial production of units for homes and offices is expected in 2006.

The technology is “”relatively inexpensive,”” says Johnston. If so and if commercially viable it could challenge the two main technologies used today by major manufacturers, LCD and plasma.

Plasma panels, whose technology is similar to conventional tube TVs, are easier to make in large sizes than LCDs, are less expensive and have faster responses. That makes them better for video. However, LCD displays based on liquid crystals have a better lifetime and less burn-in problems, making them good for static information such as PowerPoint displays.

A number of vendors planned to announce new products at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Before the show there were reports that Canon Inc. and Toshiba Corp. would show prototypes of a surface conduction electron display (SED) panel TV that the companies have been jointly working on, with sales to start in 2005.

Meanwhile ViewSonic Inc., which sells 50-inch plasma and 30-inch LCD panel TVs, said in an interview with CDN before the show it would reveal a “”significantly larger”” LCD display there.

That’s because LCD makers are increasingly able to produce panels closer to the largest plasma displays. It’s one of the reasons why U.S. display market research firm Pacific Media Associates predicts that from fewer than 10,000 units in 2002, the worldwide 30-plus inch LCD set market will grow to almost 1.4 million units in 2007.

However, plasma will still own two-thirds of the 4.6 million worldwide large display (more than 30 inch) market three years from now. And it will dominate displays more than 40 inches in size, PMA predicts, while LCD will prevail in displays below that.

“”There’s an interesting horse race going on,”” observes Sam Miller, ViewSonic’s U.S. director of technical marketing. “”LCD is capable of greater resolution than plasma, and the two are going to butt heads in size and resolution.””

“”For business use the trend is toward LCD,”” because it offers higher resolution, says Toshi Matsuo, general manager of consumer display products at Sony of Canada Ltd., which sells both formats.

“”A couple of years ago when plasma launched in North America a lot of business users changed from tube TV to (plasma) for business applications. But now that there are more LCD offerings in larger sizes, a lot of businesses have shifted to LCD.””

“”We feel plasma gives a better picture in video,”” says David Craig, marketing manager for Panasonic Canada’s broadcast and security systems division. “”But they are very close.””

Meanwhile, Johnston hopes that iFire is on the cusp of delivering a viable technology, which the company has been working on since 1997 when it was known as Westaim Corp., a division of Sherrit Corp. Westaim went public, set up iFire to concentrate on TDEL technology and bought a former Litton LCD plant in Toronto to expand. It now has 140 workers.

Its Japanese development partners are Dai Nippon Printing and Sanyo Electric. For the prototypes Sanyo helps with the electronics, and DPL produces the “”front end”” of the panels, which are shipped to Toronto where iFire does phosphor deposition. So far, iFire has spent $100 million on the effort, which Johnston says is nothing compared to the money needed for LCD and plasma plants.

He says the technology can scale up to 50 inches at half the cost of LCD. If so, there may be a new panel on the market to dazzle the eye.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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