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Where have all the plasmas gone?

March 3, 2009 By Geoffrey Morrison



Why has the once shining symbol of the future of TV almost completely disappeared from the landscape?

It seems like every TV manufacturer either makes or sells LCDs, but only a handful make plasmas anymore.

With the departure of Pioneer from the market, what does that mean for the future of plasma?

It's official, Pioneer will leave the TV market in the US in early 2010.  This is disappointing for anyone who was a fan of excellent picture quality, and the sadness and potential reasons why we discussed in our first podcast, and in another one of my blogs.

It does, however, bring up a new question. Why are there so few plasma TV makers out there? Looking at the landscape, it seems like there's Panasonic, Hitachi, LG, Samsung, and probably a few Chinese brands no one has ever heard of. Yet on the LCD side there is, well, all of those companies and a few dozen more. Why so much LCD love?

It is not, in any way, because LCD is a superior technology. To think this is at best naive. Each technology has their pros and cons, and while picture quality certainly is a factor in any companies decision to manufacture a product, it isn't as high on the list as you'd hope.

So why are there so many LCD makers? Easy.

Money.

Panasonic's Amagasaki plant complexSay you have 100 billion to spend on a TV manufacturing plant. I'm sure you do, check your sofa cushions.

On your menu are two plants, one that can make plasma, the other can make LCD. The LCD plant is going to be more expensive to build. Let's say it costs the full 100.

The plasma plant is a little cheaper to build, which leaves you a little money left over for, I don't know, cake.

At first glance this seems like a no-brainer. LCD plants need clean rooms that are far more substantial than those in plasma plants.

It's also easier and cheaper to make plasma TVs big. Panasonic has been making and selling, a 103-inch plasma for a few years now. They say they'll be selling their 150 soon. While these big TVs are cool, they're obviously not where the volume is.

And that's the problem. It is extremely difficult to build a plasma much smaller than 42-inches (Panasonic made a 37 for a while). The difficulty is because the pixels on a plasma, unlike on an LCD, create the light you see. LCD pixels merely block the light created by a backlight of fluorescents, or recently in some cases, LEDs. As the pixels get smaller with screen size, they by nature are less bright (less surface area to create light).

So in theory you could make a 20-inch plasma, but it would about as bright as a candle. The same reason it's "easy" to make a big plasma is the same reason it is hard to make a small one. In some ways the opposite is true with LCDs.

While the phosphor technology will advance to the point where smaller pixels are brighter, or those in the larger panels are more efficient, it's extremely doubtful you'll see any smaller than 42.

So let's look back at the question. You have 100 billion to spend on a plant. Plant "A" can make TVs from 2-inches all the way up to (conceivably) 100-inches.  Plant "B" is a little cheaper, but can make TVs from 42-inches to 150-inches.

Faced with this decision, it becomes pretty easy to see why there are more LCD manufacturers. Even those companies that are steadfast fans of plasma (Panasonic), also make LCDs for their smaller screen sizes.

The fact is, despite many of us thinking how tiny 42-inch TVs are, many feel 42 is huge. Then there's the kitchen TV market, the bathroom TV market, the kids room market... and so on. There's just too much potential volume on the LCD side.

And it's all about volume.

Plasma future?

As I mentioned in my other blog on Pioneer's departure, the reduction in the number of companies making plasma makes very little real world difference. To the vast majority of consumers, all LCDs and plasmas are just "flat-panels" and the technology matters little. As long as the companies making plasmas can still make money on that business, they'll keep making them, at least for now.

Looking forward, LCD and plasma will carry us along until the next big thing in flat panel technology. Most eyes are on OLED. Here's a technology that is potentially easier (cheaper) to manufacture than LCD or plasma, is thinner, has a better contrast ratio, and can be as large or as small as you can imagine.

At least, that's the potential. At the moment, it's insanely expensive.

Comments

I just bought my second Panasonic plasma (wanted to upgrade to a larger screen), and it's a better picture quality than my mom's LCD.

it's a shame to see pioneer go it's to bad that in this day and age superior products don't win out, pioneer really needed to follow companies like panasonic maybe cut some production costs and take some of the uneeded elements out of the tv like they did with outsourcing their glass but pioneer also needed better marketing too reposition the brand as a tv leader many consumers didn't know that pioneer was the absolut best it's seem they should of stuck to what they do best plasma's not to knock their audio equipment but by repositiong their plasmas as the ultimate tv kind of like the sony "like no other" campaign and by lowering prices which would have been the tough part pioneer could have really made a run to capture alot more of the market i think the main problem though is that plasma manufacturers are not educating consumers on plasma technology it seems to me that many consumers still feel that plasma's burn in, aren't bright enough, very reflective and break easily but alot of these past problems have been fixed while increasing picture quality,

so who is competing really in the plasma market? it seems just like panasonic and samsung are the only real viable competitors while lg and other small companies try and keep up

it will be intresting to see what happens in say 2 years alot will change

i'm still waiting on SED to make it's reemergence though haha

SED may return, there are new rumors. Though their battle is going to be 10x harder than it even was a few years ago. I wouldn't hold out too much hope for it.

Big OLED on the other hand...

Pioneer's exit from the market makes sense, from a business standpoint. As great as the Kuro was, Pioneer only held 4.9% marketshare of the plasma market, according to a published industry survey. There's no way, considering the cost of producing plasma, that Pioneer could have continued producing plasmas with this small a share of the market. Panasonic has 49.9% marketshare (according to the same survey), and five factories in Japan totally dedicated to nothing but producing plasma. Plasma is not going away, with Pioneer's exit. Pioneer leaving is an indication that the market is correcting itself, as would be expected.

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