Sony outlines flat panel TV technology plans

Sony, long a leading player in the television market with its Trinitron CRT (cathode ray tube) technology, is getting serious about the fast-expanding flat-panel television sector. On Thursday the company launched a major push into the market with a line-up of eight flat-panel TVs due to go on sale in Japan by the end of this year.

In the company's sights is a market that is forecast to be worth US$15 billion worldwide this year and expected to climb to US$40.6 billion by 2007, according an estimate from market-research company IDC. Beyond that market, Sony also has a specific company in its sights: the current LCD (liquid crystal display) TV leader, Sharp.

"Customers in Japan have a strong image that Sharp equals LCD," said Makoto Kogure, vice president of Sony and president of the company's TV group, in an interview on Thursday. "We'd like to break that."

Sony believes that with the new televisions unveiled on Thursday its technology can deliver a better picture and richer sound.

At the top of the range is a 46-inch LCD model that the company will sell under its Qualia brand name. The model uses a panel produced by Samsung Electronics that is currently the world's largest in commercial production and, perhaps more importantly, 1 inch larger than the biggest panel being produced by Sharp.

The Qualia 005 TV is also the first in the world to use an LED (light emitting diode) backlight, which Sony says helps the set deliver a superior picture with truer and richer colors.

That appears to be true. At the unveiling on Thursday the new Qualia set was displayed alongside a competitor's model, unnamed but unmistakably a Sharp set because of its case style, and the Qualia set did appear to produce a better picture, at least for the sample images used in the demonstration.

"In the sense of technology we have completely caught up (with Sharp)," Kogure said.

Ken Kutaragi, executive deputy president and chief operating officer of Sony, went one further and said his company had not only caught up with Sharp, but overtaken it. With Sony committed to pushing more networking technologies and with its experience in semiconductor technologies, from now on Sharp will always be playing catch-up with Sony and not vice versa, he said.

In addition to picture and audio quality, Sony is also trying to beat its rivals with an on-screen navigation technology called xross (pronounced 'cross') media bar, or XMB. The system first appeared in its PSX combined hard-disk video recorder/PlayStation 2 unit and attempts to simplify the dizzying selection of input sources, channels and content available on a digital television.

Sony has plans to put XMB into other products, such as Blu-ray Disc recorders or its upcoming PSP (PlayStation Portable) handheld game device, to provide a common user interface onto the network, said Kutaragi, speaking on the sidelines of the Thursday TV launch event. Eventually, Kutaragi said, he would like to see a system developed so that new devices automatically appear on the menu of all compatible products as soon as they are plugged into a home network.

Alongside the new Qualia set, Sony also announced several other models including 26-inch, 32-inch and 40-inch LCD models and 37-inch, 42-inch and 50-inch PDP (Plasma Display Panel) models.

Looking ahead, Kogure said he anticipates that both LCD and PDP will continue to sell in the flat-panel market because of their relative strengths and weaknesses. PDP has a cost advantage over LCD at the high end although at other sizes LCD will dominate, he said. That's because LCD is superior at smaller sizes, it can support higher resolutions more easily and the color reproduction system can be more easily changed.

Other technologies are under development. Several companies are pursuing OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens, and Toshiba and Canon are researching SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display). Sony has been working on FED (Field Emission Display) technology for several years but that has yet to reach commercialization.

"In the next 10 or 20 years there will be many, many different developments and they will coexist with each other," Kogure said. "Each has its own merit and demerit. Many products will be introduced and in the end the customer will decide."

Regarding Sony's work on FED, he said development is still underway.

"Technology-wise, with no business or investment issues, in two years it's easy (to produce a commercial FED)," he said.

Sony is researching FED because its the flat-panel technology that comes closest to matching the picture of a CRT (cathode ray tube), said Kogure. "FED's response is very fast and it's very easy to make a CRT-like picture. Power consumption is very low."

Kutaragi also praised FEDs for their warm picture and brushed off a suggestion that development of the technology was proceeding too slowly.

"Sharp started developing LCD (technology) 30 years ago and they started talking about LCD TVs in 1996. It will take time."

Paul Kallender in Tokyo contributed to this report.