Japanese Vendors Push out Plasma Screens

Over the past few weeks Japanese computer and consumer electronics companies, including Fujitsu Ltd., NEC Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Sony Corp., have stepped up their efforts to roll out flat panel plasma displays based on plasma technology. It will take years before plasma screens start reaching end users, however. Plasma screens are considered one of the key technologies for building large form-factor flat panel products such as wall-mount televisions and computer displays.

If the leading makers of televisions and monitors of today have their way, the living rooms and offices of the future are sure to have one thing in common: plasma.

Over the past few weeks Japanese computer and consumer electronics companies, including Fujitsu Ltd., NEC Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Sony Corp., have stepped up their efforts to roll out flat panel plasma displays based on plasma technology. The companies have announced more advanced screens than have previously been available, along with first generation products that incorporate the screens.

Considered to be one of the key technologies for building large form-factor flat panel products such as wall-mount televisions and computer displays, plasma screens are still in their infancy in terms of market penetration, said Hiroyuki Yoshida, an analyst at market researcher IDC Japan Ltd. He said that it will take years before plasma screens start reaching end users.

Nevertheless, many vendors are already rolling out products, Yoshida said, in the hope that the upcoming winter Olympics due to be held in Nagano, Japan, will provide a showcase for the bright screens.

NEC Corp. for instance, last week unveiled a 50-inch television with a resolution of 1,365 by 768 pixels in addition to a 42-inch television and a 33-inch display with speakers designed for business presentations.

International sales of the products will begin next year, NEC officials said.

Meanwhile, Sony Corp. with partners Sharp Corp. and Philips Electronics N.V. of the Netherlands on Friday announced a 42-inch plasma unit that offers a wider viewing angle - 140 degrees both horizontally and vertically - than earlier generation screens.

The screen, available in sample quantities some time next year, is a hybrid of plasma and traditional liquid crystal display technology, a pairing which Sony officials say offers the brightness and high contrast of LCD screens along with the wide viewing angle of plasma units.

Aiming its new unit at business users, Hitachi last week unveiled a 41-inch plasma unit with XGA resolution -- 1.024 by 768 pixels -- that will also go on sale next year.

Despite the flurry of activity, plasma technology has still a long way to go before it hits the mainstream consumer and business markets. Embraced by vendors just in the last few years, plasma-based displays are still expensive and will remain that way until both production and market demand grow, company officials said.

The NEC televisions for instance, are priced from 1.45 million yen (US$12,000), while a current generation 25-inch Sony screen is priced at about 900,000 yen.

Though plasma screen prices are coming down slowly, it will be well past the year 2000 when the screens get to a level comparable with even the upper reaches of most buyers' price ranges, according to IDC's Yoshida.

He said that by the year 2000 the cost of plasma screens should fall to about 10,000 yen (US$85) per inch.

Hitachi can be reached at +81-3-3258-1111 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.hitachi.com/. Sony is at +81-3-5448-2200 or at http://www.sony.com/. NEC is at +81-3-3798-6511, or at http://www.nec.com/.

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