large flat panel monitors: The view ahead

When it comes to displays, size really does count. But bigger is only better if the quality is up to par — a problem that has held back flat-panel displays. Now better technology, lower prices and new applications are opening up doors for resellers as part of their solution offerings.
The corporate market for large flat-panel displays (30 inches and above) is expected to nearly double this year, according to Pacific Media Associates.
Growth is explosive because volumes were relatively low in 2003 and 2004, says Rosemary Abowd, director of flat-panel display research with the Menlo Park, Calif.-based research firm. Still, she expects to see healthy growth of 35 to 45 per cent until 2009.
“We don’t think there will be a major supply issue, except with the very largest sizes (40 inches and above) for LCD flat-screen displays,” she says. The price will control demand for the next six to 12 months, she adds, as production improves and supplies escalate.
Historically, corporate demand for the 30/32-inch size has been minimal, she says, although the hospitality market may change this pattern. However, the corporate market needs at least 37 inches for applications like digital signage and audience viewing, particularly in wide-screen aspect ratios.
One application driving the adoption of flat-panel displays in the corporate market is the replacement of CRT-based monitors and televisions in conference rooms. “This replacement is happening partly because of technology obsolescence and partly because there are space restrictions and partly because of aesthetic preferences,” says Abowd, adding that flat-panel displays look slicker and more avant-garde.
They’re also being used as a substitute for front projectors. The price difference between 42-inch PDP displays and similar resolution front projectors has dropped dramatically in the past 12 months, she says.
For example, 42-inch XGA plasma display prices have fallen 28 per cent since January. And with EDTV PDPs retailing for US$1,900 (and falling), smaller conference areas can now afford to install permanent flat-panel displays instead of a front projector and separate screen. It’s an attractive alternative that’s getting a second look, she says, as prices continue to tumble.

Niche markets
The other area picking up steam is digital signage after years of modest sales. “This isn’t because the flat-screen displays are lacking,” says Abowd. “It’s simply because it takes much, much more than the display to create an effective electronic sign.”
One of the most promising verticals right now is hospitality. Upscale hotel chains are installing flat-panel TVs — both LCD and PDP models — instead of CRT televisions, she says. These are sophisticated units that require a tuner and must support video-on-demand.
A second vertical is the infotainment market, where flat-panel displays are being used in public viewing areas such as restaurants and waiting areas in airports and doctors’ offices. “These televisions also require a bit of sophistication as they could need to be collectively controlled by a single input source,” she says.
While a number of companies are interested in digital signage, it’s the most complex of all the business applications, says Abowd, because it involves the integration of the display with a content delivery system.
This could involve a complex combination of centralized content creation and storage, networking software and servers to deliver content to the correct displays across a store — or even across a continent.
In this case, adoption will not be driven by price.
“An elegant and simple content delivery mechanism will do more to drive adoption than an inexpensive flat-screen display,” she says.
This is where resellers can step in. Greg Myers, vice-president of marketing for Tech Data Canada in Mississauga, Ont., says digital signage requires the integration of hardware, software, content and installation.
This product category is growing rapidly, he says, seeing double and triple growth in terms of revenue. “Technology for sure is driving that,” he says. Not only have price points fallen, screens are brighter, clearer and have a longer life span. A few years ago, customers were concerned the technology would fade in four or five years. Now, it has a life span of 60,000 hours, or eight hours a day for 20 years.
“As a result, it’s a big pickup for VARs,” says Myers. And the biggest opportunity is in digital signage, he adds, from retail stores to point-of-sale locations. Target verticals include financial, education and retail.
Tech Data uses flat-panel displays within its own business to deliver employee messages between walk-in hours and to provide information on special offers in its customer pick-up area.

“This whole digital signage revolution is underway,” says Myers, adding that much of the software is being developed in the Toronto area (by companies like Omnivex). “A large screen creates way more interest than a poster does.”
With digital signage, the display simply becomes another device on the network, so Myers sees this as an opportunity for networking VARs.
“One might think this is the domain of the pro AV (audio/visual) dealer,” says Myers. “[But] it actually favours the VAR.”
The screen is simply a medium for the software, he says, and digital signage requires integrated technologies on the network. “Their expertise really gives them a foot up in this space,” he says. “It’s absolutely an IT play.”
One of the challenges is the “no sound” factor, because it doesn’t make sense in most environments (such as in a noisy airport or retail stores).
Displays less than 30 inches in size are largely being used as single-viewer monitors rather than for multiple-view applications, and that space has a different set of market dynamics and supply-demand issues, says Abowd.
This is the year of the 19-inch monitor, says Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst with Evans Research Corp. in Etobicoke, Ont. “It’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
In the second quarter of this year, for example, sales jumped 269 per cent. This growth is due in part to abundant supply as well as aggressive pricing.
Another driver is the technology itself, she says. A year or two ago, flat-panel displays were hindered by slow response times for video. Manufacturers are now addressing that issue, she says, and coming out with faster products.

Strong supply
Limited supply has also ceased to be an issue. A few years ago, supply was a real concern, she says, and the shortage of notebook screens was directly affected by the increase in popularity of standalone LCDs.
“But now it’s almost the opposite,” says Warren. “There’s strong supply, strong inventory, and what’s happening now is we have a huge number of competitors, so it’s benefiting purchasers of technology and it’s also giving us an option when we’re looking at which products we want to install.”
It’s also making the market more competitive for vendors, she says, which means partnerships between resellers, distributors and vendors are critical in keeping products top-of-mind when dealing with clients.
How do resellers position flat-panel displays?
“Ultimately, it’s a better solution,” says Maria Del Rio-Arbuckle, product manager for commercial displays and workstations with HP Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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