Category: The Front Line

Smartphones vs. Digital Cameras: The Death Knell?

For those of us who focus on trends in display technology, trends in digital photography seem to be happening in another, parallel universe. Yet, what happens in that universe has a very real impact in ours.

For the third year in a row, shipments and sales of digital cameras have declined worldwide – and the decline is accelerating, based on the latest numbers I’ve been able to find.

Canon, a venerable, 80-year-old Japanese company who has successfully weathered recent downturns in CE sales that have brought its competitors to their knees, announced a couple of months ago that sales of single-lens reflex digital cameras with interchangeable lenses fell for the first time in 2013 and would be off by at least 10% by year’s end, having a direct negative impact on the company’s bottom line.

According to a story on the Bloomberg News site, Canon said net income would likely total 240 billion yen ($2.5 billion) for the year ending December, cutting its earlier forecast of 260 billion yen. According to the Camera & Imaging Products Association in Tokyo, the value of worldwide camera shipments dropped 19 percent in August from a year earlier, representing a ninth consecutive monthly decline.

The final tally for 2013 won’t be available until late January, but you can already see the effects of this slide in sales, which started in 2011. The year-to-year data compiled by CIPA in December of 2012 revealed that worldwide shipments of point-and-shoot digital cameras had plummeted by an astounding 40%. Still, it was assumed that higher-priced, fully-featured digital SLRs would be immune from the onslaught of smartphones with improved cameras and lenses.

Now, we know that’s not the case. And you needn’t look any further for proof than your Sunday newspaper. Last weekend’s Philadelphia Inquirer featured a slick, eight-page flier from Nikon, printed on bright yellow glossy stock. The supposed beneficiary of this flier was Jack’s Cameras, a once-large regional chain of camera stores in the Delaware Valley that has been shuttering locations due to declining sales of cameras and photo printing/finishing orders.

This flier extolled the virtues of Nikon digital cameras and prominently featured Nikon’s role as “The Official Walt Disney World Camera.” Aside from the massive shrugging of shoulders and yawns that statement instigated, there were some revealing lines of copy in the flier. Several pages had a bold banner that read, “Superior Image Quality Your Smartphone Can’t Match1.” The footnote (1) read, “Based on digital SLR cameras with DX-format or FX-format sensor versus smartphones without DX-format or FX-format sensor.”

Well, DUHHH! There aren’t any smartphones with full-sized CMOS sensors available. (Yet?) But that’s not the point: Smartphones do have pretty good cameras. And they’re getting better with each passing year. Although the limitations of this Web site limit me to 600 pixel resolution for photos, you can see the photo (below) of La Spezia Harbor in Italy below looks awfully darn good – and I took it with my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD smartphone (3264×1836 resolution).

The scenic harbor of La Spezia, Italy.

The scenic harbor of La Spezia, Italy.

Read the flier in more detail, and you will see just how desperate camera manufacturers are becoming. Nikon’s showcase deal is for a D3200 D-SLR with 18-55mm zoom lens for $497, after a $100 instant rebate. Add a 55-200mm Nikkor zoom lens for just $147.

I should mention that the D3200 has a 24.2 megapixel sensor, can shoot up to four frames per second, records 1080p/60 video, and offers an optional WU-1a mobile Wi-Fi adapter, so you can upload and share your photos.  (Aside from the Wi-Fi adapter, that level of performance in a digital SLR was a $2,000 investment just a few years ago.)

The problem for Nikon is; I can already do most of those things with my smartphone. No, it doesn’t have anywhere near the resolution of the D3200, but I’ll bet I can still get some pretty good-looking photos with it anyway at Disney World – and I can instantly post them to Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. Plus, make phone calls, sent and receive texts and emails, check sports scores, and waste hours playing Candy Crush. Can the D3200 do that?

OK, let’s check out the Nikon specials on point-and-shoots. In early 2012, I bought a CoolPix 8200 for about $250 to use at trade shows and when traveling. It had 16 MP of resolution and a 14x zoom lens. I shot thousands of photos with it during the year, and discovered back in February that the lens had a scratch in it.

So, I took it to the nearby Jack’s Camera (since closed back in August), where I was promptly told (a) it would cost at least $200 to repair and replace the lens, (b) the camera was only worth about $30 anyway, and (c) I could get a $100 instant rebate on a new CoolPix P310 which had a much better lens, a 16 MP sensor, 4.2x optical zoom, and would wind up costing me all of $229.

Flash forward twelve months: There is only one camera store remaining in my town, out of four in 1993. My CoolPix P310 has performed yeoman duty and will serve me faithfully again at CES in two weeks. The updated model is the P330, which has only 12 MP resolution but extends the zoom range to 5x and includes a GPS function. Or, I could pick up a shiny new CoolPix S9500 with 18 MP resolution, 22x optical zoom, and built-in Wi-Fi and GPS for all of $247.

As a former professional photographer, I fully understand and appreciate the benefits of a digital SLR. (I still have a six-year-old Olympus D-SLR sitting in a camera bag somewhere around the house.)  As a pragmatist, I see no point in dragging a D-SLR to a trade show when my P310 pocket camera does the job just as well and takes up little room.

And as an analyst, I completely understand why digital cameras are in full retreat. Smartphones may not take the best pictures or have the best light sensitivity, but they are doggone good at what they do, and getting better with each year. And they’re small, portable, and convenient.

One of my economics professors told me years ago that everyone weighs three factors when making a purchase decision – price, quality, and convenience. And price and convenience win out more times than you’d think.

Need proof? Just look at what’s happening to the digital camera marketplace…

 

There’s a New QD Maker in Town

Quantum Materials is the new quantum dot (QD) company in town. It needs to play catch-up with the established players, but it is offering something different.

The two established players — QD Vision of Lexington, Massachusetts and Nanosys Inc. of Milpitas, California — dominate the consciousness of those who spend time thinking about the application of QDs to electronic displays. QD Vision currently incorporates its QDs in an optical component it calls Color IQ, which sits in front of the LEDs in an LED edge-light. The component is being used in several models of Sony Bravia TV sets.

Nanosys has partnered with 3M’s Optical Systems Division, which is applying Nanosys QDs to a polymer film and passivating it with a 3M moisture blocking film. 3M calls the finished product Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF). In contrast to QD Vision’s Color IQ, QDEF is applied parallel to the entire surface of an LCD. Indeed, it substitutes for the diffusing film in the LCD’s backlight.

QDs absorb photons of light and re-emit the energy at longer wavelengths with a very narrow emission spectrum. The specific color emitted depends on the size of the QD’s core, which ranges from roughly 2.0 to 4.2 nanometers for the visible spectrum.  For displays, QDs are used to modify the backlight unit of an LCD.  Instead of using white LEDs, QD-enhanced backlights use less expensive blue LEDs, and two sizes of QD convert some of the blue light into red and some into green.  The red and green can have particular wavelength desired, and can contribute to a wider color gamut than traditional LCDs with conventional backlights.  This combination of wide gamut and narrow emission peaks can give LCDs an appearance that is surprisingly similar to that of an OLED, and the cost increase over conventional LCDs is slight.

For all of their differences, the QDs made by QD Vision and Nanosys have two things in common: They are roughly spherical, and they are made with a colloidal batch process.

And that’s where Quantum Materials Corp. (QMC) enters the story. With technology based on Rice University patents, QMC is producing QDs that have a tetrapod-like, rather than spherical, geometry. In a recent conference call, R&D VP David Doderer told me that tetrapods have a variety of advantages in different applications. For displays, there is a degree of self-assembly when the tetrapods are deposited on a substrate, which produces a layer in which the QDs are separated from each other by their appendages, which avoids the use of excessive material and also avoids quenching of the re-emission, resulting in better efficiency. Also, the emission spectrum has a width that, at 20nm full width at half maximum (FWHM), is roughly half that of spherical QDs, Doderer said.

Although, in other applications, the core and the appendages can be separately engineered to produce different wavelengths of light, a single narrow wavelength is selected for displays.

QMC’s competitors produce their QDs in a colloidal batch process, which means that the chemical precursors are mixed together and heated in a container until the temperature is reached at which the precursors are converted into the QDs. The approach is effective but slow, said Doderer, and would probably not supply enough material to support large-scale TV manufacturing.

QMC has patented a continuous manufacturing approach using a microfluidic reactor. One small reactor can produce 100 kg of tetrapod QDs per day, or 30,000 kg per year. If you want more, add reactors. And the tetrapodal QDs made by the Rice University method is extremely uniform, with 90% of the QDs having a full tetrapodal shape, and more than 90% emission uniformity.

QMC got a later start than its competitors. QD Vision is already in a shipping product, and 3M’s QDEF is being manufactured in quantity. I will guess that 3M will announce at least one design win at CES. QMC is still in the development phase but, says Doderer, “We believe our current trajectory will enable a recognized commercial electronics product launch in 2014 using Quantum Material tetrapod quantum dots.”

Ken Werner is the founder and principal of Nutmeg Consultants.  He can be reached at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

 

A La Carte TV: No Blue Plate Special?

As the winds of change push more and more consumers away from conventional pay TV packages and toward streaming, “over the top” video, an interesting report has just arrived from Needham and Co. analyst Laura Martin.

The report, detailed in the Los Angeles Times, says that moving to an “a la carte” model for delivery of TV programming would result in higher costs for consumers and possibly knock the foundation out from under media companies.

According to Martin, a la carte delivery of pay TV channels would cause at least 124 smaller channels to disappear altogether, taking with them 1.4 million jobs and at least $45B in advertising.

Martin has calculated that a typical entertainment cable channel costs about $280 million per year to operate and requires (with current retransmission and rights fees) about 165,000 viewers annually just to break even. As a result, only 50 or so channels would be likely to survive out of the nearly 200 channels of programming currently available across a multitude of pay TV outlets.

Martin also notes that the typical subscriber watches perhaps 20 channels at most out of an average selection of 180 channels. I think that number is high; anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues suggest the number is much lower and close to 10 – 15 channels.

The Needham study states that, in addition to the economic cost of a move to a la carte pay TV – pegged at $80B to $113B of “U.S. consumer value” – the costs to subscribe to existing channels would also increase, as they would inevitably lose subscribers as well.

I’ve previously detailed the growing calls for moving sports channels to their own tier, given the additional cost burden they add to the average monthly cable bill (about 10% to 12%). Not surprisingly, companies like Disney (ABC, ESPN), Fox, Comcast (NBC), and CBS oppose a move like this.

But the fact is; consumers are increasingly voting to switch off pay TV services and instead rely on the likes of Comcast and Time Warner to deliver broadband connectivity, and nothing more. This “cutting the cord” trend finally gained the recognition it deserved earlier this year when it was revealed that pay TV subscriptions went into decline for the first year ever.

Aereo, the disruptive “remote antenna” service that is rolling out nationwide and faces continued court challenges, charges about $10 to stream over-the-air broadcasts through the Internet to connected TVs, tablets, and phones, and is another approach to OTT delivery. Yesterday, the company petitioned the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals for a Writ of Certiorari – in essence, forcing the issue to the Supreme Court for review.

If Aereo wins here – and it could – then the floodgates will surely open for other, competing OTT services that could cherry-pick channels and deliver them to the home in an attempt to lower monthly subscription costs. And even the cable companies are paying attention: Comcast announced in October a limited entry-level pay TV channel bundle that also includes fast Internet and HBO Go for about $60 – $70/month.

Even so, Netflix is still the largest pay TV service in the world, closing in on 30 million subscribers. And all you need to watch it is a fast Internet connection (if it’s fast enough, you might even be able to watch Netflix’ 4K movie service that is scheduled to roll out next year). In many markets, all you really need as a Roku or Apple TV box plus an antenna to get a nice selection of free and premium programming.

Granted, you won’t get as many sporting events, but studies have shown that only about 4% of pay TV subscribers watch sports channels on a regular basis to begin with. And many big-ticket events like NFL games, major league baseball, college football and basketball, and (of course) the Olympics are still available on broadcast TV channels.

While Martin’s study is interesting, it discounts the “free market” effect of consumers voting to save money and find other ways to access TV programming.  There are always winners and losers in a free market system, and the fact is; pay TV subscriptions continue to rise annually at rates above inflation. Consequently, consumers are making necessary economic decisions about the price paid versus the value received, which is why interest in OTT video is slowly growing.

Starting next year, Canada will require pay TV services to “unbundle” TV channel packages as a way to rein in expensive monthly bills. So we have the perfect test lab north of the border to see just how a la carte pay TV will work, or won’t work. Stay tuned!

Black Friday: Boom, Or Bust?

Two articles that appeared today and covered retail sales over the Black Friday weekend appear to contradict each other.

In an upbeat post on the Home Media Web site, writer Chris Tribbey said that more than 141 million shoppers gave their credit cards a workout last weekend, up about 1.4% from last year. Total spending for the weekend was estimated to reach $57.4B, according to the National Retail Federation.

The NRF also claimed that 40% of shoppers bought their items online, which is a record. ShopperTrak said that sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday came to $12.3B, up 2.8% from last year. Electronics and DVD/Blu-ray discs were among the top four purchases made in over 1 million visits to brick-and-mortar stores.

Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation (NRF), was quoted in the story as saying, “By all appearances and according to CEOs I’ve spoken with across the retail spectrum, it looks like the early opening of stores on Thanksgiving and the traditional start of holiday shopping on Black Friday is breaking new records, including what companies are seeing through their digital channels. The key takeaway at this point is that the real winners are in fact the consumers, who are recognizing more savings through competitive pricing and great promotions being offered in every category.”

In another story in the New York Times, Elizabeth Harris writes that consumers spent about $1.7B less than they did in in 2012, quoting the same National Retail Federation. In this story, Shay was not quite as upbeat, saying “There are some economic challenges that many Americans still face. So in general terms, many are intending to be a little bit more conservative with their budgets.”

The Times story showed that, although overall sales were up from last year, the average amount each consumer spent or planned to spend by the close of business on Sunday dropped about $16 from $423 to $407. Total weekend spending (as in the Home Media story) was predicted to be $57.4B, which actually represents a decrease of about 3% Y-Y.

Many retailers started their discounting as early as November 1, which may have impacted Thanksgiving and Black Friday traffic. The ShopperTrak data left out of the Home Media article reveals that Black Friday sales declined 13.2% from 2012, no doubt cannibalized from earlier store openings on Thanksgiving.

I spent the holidays with relatives in southern Vermont, and the Friday and Saturday news broadcasts showed plenty of parking spaces at malls in Albany, NY (about an hour’s drive to the southwest). Indeed; it appeared from the local news coverage that Thanksgiving evening was pure pandemonium, but Friday and Saturday were more like a regular Monday or Tuesday.

Either way, this annual exercise in crass mercantilism comes at a cost to store chains. Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy have all lowered expectations for the quarter, citing sliding consumer confidence and slow wage growth (now, THAT’S ironic, coming from Wal-Mart!) as reasons why consumers won’t open up more of their wallets.

Perhaps the lone bit of good news – at least for manufacturers and retailers of tablets and smart phones – was that 40% of all online transactions were from mobile devices, according to Jay Henderson of IBM Smarter Commerce. In the Times article, Henderson was quoted as saying, “That’s pretty staggering. You hear a lot about the year of mobile, and this is probably the fifth annual year of mobile. But 40 percent of all traffic feels like a tipping point.”

According to the IBM data, mobile sales were responsible for about 26 percent of total online sales on Thursday and nearly 22 percent on Friday. IBM saw a late surge in online shopping on both days. Smartphones accounted for about 25 percent of shopping traffic on Friday, with over 14 percent coming from tablets. As far as actual online sales went, tablets accounted for 14 percent and smartphones about 7 percent.

Even so; shopping in brick-and-mortar stores still accounts for more than 90 percent of all retail sales. I’ve used my tablet(s) to shop for the best price in retail stores and then gone a-shopping, and I suspect others have, too.

So – was this a good or bad Black Friday weekend? Depends on your point of view…

Mixed Signals about UHDTV

Earlier this week, there were a few “coincidental” press events and trade shows, all in New York City or just across the river in New Jersey. And all of them featured discussions about or demonstrations of UHDTV technology.

First off was the CES 2014 Unveiled event, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The morning and part of the afternoon were taken up by an Ultra HD Conference, which featured several panel discussions and a keynote address during lunch. The first panel, titled “Ultra HD: An Evolution, or Revolution?” featured executives from LG, Sony, Toshiba, and Sharp, and set the table for many ad hoc discussions later on in the day, such as (a) does the public REALLY want or understand UHDTV, and (b) will UHDTV stimulate a stagnating market for televisions?

The second panel, moderated by Deborah McAdams of TV Technology, was called “Native Ultra HD Content: Where’s The Beef?” and addressed the elephant in the room; namely, where is 4K video content going to come from, and how will we get it into the home? Panelists from the ATSC, the Digital Entertainment Group, and Rovi tackled those questions, while yet another group discussed “Taking Ultra HD to Retail” later in the day.

LG's 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

LG’s 77-inch 4K curved OLED TV wowed attendees at the CES event.

 

Given that this was a CEA event, we did hear a lot of positive spin and wishful thinking about Ultra HD (UHDTV). And that’s not surprising, considering that the actual outlook for television sales for the upcoming holiday selling season isn’t all that wonderful. According to Shawn DuBravac of CEA, consumer spending on technology gifts is expected to increase in 2013 by just 2.6% over 2012, with tablet (14%) and notebook computers (12%) leading televisions (11%) as the most desired gifts on holiday wish lists. (Smartphones tied with videogame consoles at 7%.)

More tellingly; when survey participants were asked why they would adjust their holiday gift expenditures lower, 67% replied that they already have what gadgets they need and 68% said they had concerns about the economy. An additional 66% said they didn’t have the money, while 64% cited the increased cost of living as a reason to cut back on spending. None of that is good news for a new class of 4K televisions that retail for about $65 per diagonal inch, quite a premium above the $15 per diagonal inch that 2K LCD and plasma TVs sell for.

The following day, across the reviver at the Meadowlands Convention Center, I taught a class on HDMI troubleshooting at the Almo E4 Expo. This show, which is focused on the commercial AV industry, featured plenty of large screen displays from Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung, and others. And the discussions largely focused on the challenge of moving 4K content around a facility.

Would HDMI 2.0 be good enough? (Not for high frame rate 2160p content with deep color.) How about DisplayPort 1.2? (Yes, it is fast enough to handle 2160p/60 with 10-bit color, but needs to get faster.) Who is using DisplayPort? (Not enough manufacturers to date, although it appears to be the interface of choice for a growing number of digital signage media players.) Are there 4K media players available? (Yes, but in very limited quantities from a handful of manufacturers.)

Panasonic's first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

Panasonic’s first-in-class 4K Toughpad will be yours for all of $6,000.

 

One day later, the CCW / SATCON show at the Javits Center had several panel discussions and presentations focused on the nitty-gritty of capturing, editing, and distributing 4K workflows. Several booths featured 4K monitors (Panasonic had both their 4K Toughpad tablet and 31.5” 4K reference LCD monitor at the show), plus 4K encoding/decoding solutions and camera interfaces. Once again, the biggest challenge appeared to be moving enormous amounts of data around reliably and quickly.

I had an interesting sidebar discussion with veteran journalist Stewart Wolpin at the CEA event. I stated that the Chinese are going to wreak havoc on the UHDTV market as they ramp up glass production and slash prices. Wolpin replied that he didn’t see it as a problem: “Who is going to give these brands (TCL, Haier, ChangHong, etc.) any shelf space? They don’t have much if any presence in the U.S. now and just won’t be competitive with the established TV brands. They’re really more concerned with making tons of money selling TVs in their own country.”

True, China is the only part of the world where there is growth in TV sales Y-Y right now. But they have become a presence to reckon with, if for no other reason than they can make inexpensive 4K TVs with all of the bells and whistles that sell for about as much as a 1st-tier 2K TV. TCL has shipped a 50-inch 4K TV that will retail for $999, and Seiki is also raising eyebrows with their recent announcement of a 65-inch 4K TV for $2,999.

It would be a fool’s errand to predict just how fast UHDTV will be embraced by consumers. Not all parts of the ecosystem are in place yet (HDMI limitations and the lack of H.265 encoder chips are just two stumbling blocks), and there’s still the issue of content delivery to be addressed.

Even so, the trend towards using 4K glass in larger LCD (and eventually, OLED) TVs is pretty clear. Remember the days of 720p and 1080p TVs? The move to 4K will follow a similar pattern, especially where LCD panel manufacturers are seeing little or no profit cranking out 2K glass.

So – UHDTV is definitely coming, from this analyst’s perspective. How fast is still hard to tell. Check back in a year!