There is little doubt that the world of television has gone flat, but consumers like John Rogers in Sydney are still confused over whether to go for a plasma, rear-projection or LCD screen.
That decision will only get tougher next year when Canon Inc.and Toshiba launch a new type of flat screen technology called SED, the latest choice for those wishing to trade in their boxy tube TVs.
Said Rogers"I'd like to buy a flat screen TV one but I'm waiting for the right time."
Rogers, a movie buff, is looking for a TV that's bigger than 40 inches and is leaning toward a plasma model because he reckons they are better than LCDs at reproducing moving images and generate a deeper black, which important for films.
But he could also hold out for a SED TV that, proponents claim, can deliver a crisp picture with rich blacks, vivid colors, quick response times, low power consumption and a wide viewing angle -- essentially combining the best traits of plasma and LCD technology, with none of their shortcomings.
Technologically, SED is the holy grail of the flat TV industry -- images just as sharp as a traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) TV in a thin, flat form. Whether its manufacturers can actually make a profit on it, however, is another story. SED stands for surface-conduction electron-emitter display, and is very similar to CRT technology in that a picture is generated when electrons fired from the back of the set collide with a phosphor-coated screen to emit light.
But instead of using three electron guns, SED technology employs an array of hundreds of thousands of tiny electron emitters -- one for each pixel on the display.
While the CRT structure requires that electrons are beamed from deep in the back of the set, the SED's emitters can be arranged on a rear plate located extremely close to the phosphor-coated front, allowing for a much slimmer TV.
Canon, better known for its cameras and copiers, started researching SED technology 20 years ago and joined hands with Toshiba in 1999. They formed a joint venture in 2004 and plan to invest about $2 billion to develop and make the panels in Japan."We have big plans for the digital television business," Canon chief executive Fujio Mitarai said at an exhibition in Paris in the fall.
It is easy to see whyRogers is so optimistic.Flat TV sales have already surpassed CRT in Australia and the global market is expected to quadruple to about 100 million units by 2009, according to DisplaySearch, as prices fall rapidly and access to digital and high-definition broadcasting spreads.
Rogers has said he would like to have a SED TV on the market by spring of 2006. The first set will be a 55-inch model, putting it in direct competition with plasma and to a certain extent LCD sets, which are encroaching into the 50-plus range.
But analysts say Canon will be hard pressed to profit on the venture anytime soon. SED is a wonderful technology, but capital investment is heavy and it will be years before output is at levels that ensure earning a decent return.
Merrill Lynch analyst Ryohei Takahashi notes that South Korea's Samsung Electronics is aiming to get the price of a plasma set down to $20 per inch by 2008. That would mean $1,000 for a 50-inch TV, one-fourth current prices and a mighty hurdle for a relatively new product like SED.
"Making a profit in that type of environment will be very dificult," said Takahashi, predicting it might be 5 years before Canon gets the business out of the red. "But Canon has plenty of money and can stay in the game for 10 or 20 years."
The reality is that most flat TV makers are unable to keep up with high materials costs and as set prices fall 30 percent per year. Plasma TV giant Matsushita makers of the Panasonic range and top LCD TV maker Sharp are among a select few in the black right now.
Takahashi said Canon has proven that it can make a high-quality 36-inch SED TV, which the company has been showing to the public at exhibitions, but it has yet to unveil the 55-inch model that will be going up for sale.
"I don't think there are 1,000 people in the world that have seen the 55-inch TV, so no one can really comment on the picture quality. There are still concerns that the production process is quite difficult for the large screen," he said.
But if Canon can get production kinks worked out and the picture is as sharp as it claims, indications are SED could give plasma and LCD a run for its money at the high-end.
Takahashi said his ideal TV should be able to meet full high-definition (HD) specifications, meaning they are able to produce images at the highest standard of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels -- a standard that will be satisfied by the SED.
Price isn't everything. Rogers said he would be willing to shell out $4,300 to $5,200 if the TV was right. "The picture has to be nice," he said.