What Can Be Learned From Panasonic’s Exit from Plasma?

By Paul Gray

Panasonic-1113Panasonic’s final announcement of its exit from plasma display manufacturing signals the end of the road for the technology. It is worth reflecting on some conclusions:

  1. When Panasonic started its plasma business, it was by no means clear that large (say 40”+) LCD displays would be viable. There were a number of other approaches: plasma addressed LCD (PALC) for one, along with field emission displays (FED/SED). Strategy is about choices and Panasonic’s decision to go with PDP was unfortunate only in hindsight. Sharp made the right bet (LCD) but had a poor outcome: branding and timely investment seem to have had as much effect on the outcome as technology choices.
  2. Competing with a different but non-disruptive technology is dangerous. Plasma’s biggest problem was that far more companies had committed to LCD. Samsung and LGE were at best uncommitted to PDP. Panasonic’s PDP research team had to counter every move in LCD and translate it to their technology supported only by their own turnover. Inevitably they slowly lost ground, in the same way that Philips lost to TFT with its TFD (thin film diode) LCD process in the 1990s. Toshiba’s SED never got beyond the demonstration stage.
  3. The best technology doesn’t always win. Consumers buy benefits, not technology or features. A superior technology gives a head start, but perhaps little more.
  4. ‘Good enough’ is good enough. Markets move in sudden leaps, not steady incremental improvements. HD is good enough for most consumers: few can see the subtle display differences on real programming content and even fewer will pay extra.
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There are some stark lessons for OLED. One of its benefits has been explained as ‘it’s an emissive technology.’ Plasma is emissive, yet that wasn’t enough to save it. OLED has to compete with an entrenched, depreciated, mature technology in LCD. This is a very different situation to the dash towards flat panel TV that we saw in the last decade. Furthermore, high-value TV markets are saturated and OLED offers only incremental benefits over LCD at this time.

OLED may well be a winning solution in other applications where extreme thinness, lightness, color and contrast are truly valued. Camera viewfinders, aerospace and mobile look to be far more fertile opportunities. Smart phones are growing far faster than TV, while markets like lighting could be completely revolutionized by OLED. Perhaps the obsession with OLED TV is a distraction from playing to OLED’s real strengths.

This column was reprinted with permission from DisplaySearch and originally appeared here.