Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

Consumer Television: It’s Business As Usual (Or Maybe Not)

The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but a report in The Korea Herald, dated January 22 says that the final data will show Samsung dominated the global television business in 2013.

According to the story, Samsung was estimated to have sold 49 million units of flat-panel TVs last year. DisplaySearch had the totals at 32 million from January through September (the final DisplaySearch numbers for 2013 haven’t been compiled yet) and Yoon Boo-keun, Samsung’s consumer electronics division chief, stated at CES earlier this month that the company sold around 15 million TVs in Q4.

That’s an impressive number by anyone’s standards and reflects the complete dominance Samsung has in the television business. Think back 20 years to when Samsung was an afterthought; perceived as a 3rd-tier “bargain” brand for electronics.

Now, they’re on top of the heap, and have been so for eight consecutive years. In the meantime, LG looks to maintain its grip on 2nd place, with a varying market share number in the low to mid-teens throughout 2013. Between the two companies, they control over 40% of the worldwide television business.

The Japanese, on the other hand, will no doubt be disappointed by the final numbers for ’13. In the third quarter; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp were hovering around 8%, 6%, and 5% market share respectively – and those numbers are expected to drop when the final tally comes in.

As I noted in my last DD, Panasonic seems to be charting a course away from televisions, based on what they didn’t show at CES (a full line-up of 2014 models) and their emphasis on commercial sales of everything from cameras and storage devices to digital signs and batteries. And of course, Panasonic pulled the plug on plasma panel and TV manufacturing at the end of December.

The other remaining player in televisions – Toshiba – took a similar approach to their CES booth, choosing to show a wide variety of 4K (Ultra HD) display applications for home and office and skipping the TV line-up. Toshiba has already shut down two manufacturing plants and laid off over 3,000 employees because of continued losses in television and computer manufacturing.

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former continues to stay the course in sales and marketing of consumer TVs, but I’d be surprised if they don’t turn in yet another year of red ink – the ninth in a row. Sharp, meanwhile, has chosen to emphasize their super-sized lineup of TVs, plus clever engineering tricks like the Quattron+ line and their ability to manufacture IGZO TFTs with decent yields.

The problem for both companies is their uninterrupted slide in television market share that has been going on for eight years. With a 5% share worldwide and 3% in the United States as of Q3 2013, Sharp can’t afford to stay in this game for much longer. Neither can Sony, if they are serious about returning a profit to shareholders.

It doesn’t help matters that television sales are expected to have declined worldwide by 2.2% from 2012 when the accountants are done. The double-digit boom in TV sales in China kept that number from being a lot worse.

Amid the flurry of post-CES news stories about curved, super-sized UHDTVs was another item that went almost unnoticed, except for the sharp eyes of analyst Paul Gagnon of NPD DisplaySearch. In his blog post of January 17, Gagnon revealed how three retailers in the United Kingdom are already discounting LG’s “first to market” 55-inch curved OLED TV (55EA980W) by £3,000 ($4,910).

This product, which launched on these shores in July of 2013 for nearly $15,000, saw its price drop in the U.S by nearly $6,000 one month later when Samsung rolled out their own curved 55-inch model for about $9,000. And now – just seven months later – the LG model is selling in the U.K. for £4,999 ($8,178), almost one-half of its original sticker price. (Perhaps they overestimated demand?)

And the cannibalizing of TV prices continues unabated. On the last day of CES, Vizio announced its prices for a line of full-array LED 4K (UHDTV) “smart” LCD models – and they aren’t much higher than conventional LED “smart” TVs from LG and Samsung.

Case in point: The 50-inch P502ui-B1 will retail for $1,000, while the 55-inch version will have a sticker price of $1,400. The P602ui-B3 is set at $1,800, and the 65-inch model will command $2,199. Finally, a 70-inch skew (P702ui-B3) will be offered at $2,600. Consider that Samsung and Sony are trying to peddle 55-inch 4K LCD smart TVs for about $2,900 right now and you can clearly see the train wreck coming.

Summing up: Samsung dominates the consumer television world – business as usual. Panasonic and Toshiba de-emphasize TVs at CES – maybe not. Sony and Sharp keep pouring money into consumer television manufacturing and marketing, even though they are incurring substantial losses – business as usual. LG and Vizio slashing prices on OLEDs and 4K TVs – definitely not!

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly quoted the discount applied to the LG 55EA980W as the actual selling price. The article has been updated on January 29 to reflect the correct selling price and discount of this TV.

CES 2014 In The Rear-View Mirror

Once again, CES has come and gone. It sneaks up on us right after a relaxing Christmas / New Year holiday. We’re jolted out of a quiet reverie and it’s back to the rush to board at the airport gate, walking the serpentine lines for taxis at McCarran Airport, and “late to bed, early to rise” as we scramble to make our booth and off-site appointments in Las Vegas.

We don’t make them all on time. Some we miss completely. But there’s a serendipity angle to it all: We might find, in our haste to get from one meeting to another, some amazing new gadget we didn’t know about as we take shortcuts through booths in the North, South, and Central Halls.

Or a colleague sends us a text or leaves a voicemail, emphatically stating “you have to see this!” Or a chance meeting leads to an ad hoc meeting, often off-site or over a hasty lunch in the convention center.

My point is this: You “find” as many cool things at the show as you “lose.” For every must-see product that you don’t see, there’s another one you trip over. Granted; many “must-see” products are yawners – you’ve figured it out 30 seconds into your carefully-staged meeting with PR people and company executives, and you’re getting fidgety.

LS Samsung Booth MCU 600p

My best CES discoveries involve products or demos where I can observe them anonymously, without PR folks hovering at my side or staring at my badge before they pounce like hungry mountain lions.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the consumer electronics press, I don’t need to break stories the instant I hear about them. There are already too many people doing that. What’s missing is the filter of analysis – some time spent to digest the significance of a press release, product demo, or concept demo.

And that’s what I enjoy the most: Waiting a few days – or even a week – after the show to think about what I saw and ultimately explain the significance of it all. What follows is my analysis of the 2014 International CES (as we are instructed to call it) and which products and demos I thought had real significance, as opposed to those which served no apparent purpose beyond generating daily headlines and “buzz.”

Curved TV screens: OK, I had to start with this one, since every TV manufacturer at the show (save Panasonic and Toshiba) exhibited one or more curved-screen OLED and LCD televisions. Is there something to the curved-screen concept? On first blush, you’d think so, given all of the PR hype that accompanied these products.

The truth is; really big TV screens do benefit a little from a curved surface, particularly if they are UHDTV models and you are sitting close to them. The effect is not unlike Cinerama movie screens from the 1950s and 1960s. (That’s how I saw Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the day.)

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having "5K" resolution - and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having “5K” resolution – and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

Bear in mind I’m talking about BIG screens here – in the range of 80 inches and up. The super-widescreen (21:9 aspect ratio) LCD TVs shown by Samsung, LG, and Toshiba used the curve to great effect. But conventional 16:9 TVs didn’t seem to benefit as much, especially in side-by-side demos.

The facts show that worldwide TV shipments and sales have declined for two straight years, except in China where they grew by double digits each year. TV prices are also collapsing – you can buy a first-tier 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV now for $600, and 60-inch “smart” sets are well under $800 – so manufacturers will try anything to stimulate sales.

Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many UHDTV (4K) TVs all of a sudden? Partially. Unfortunately, there’s just no money in manufacturing and selling 2K TVs anymore (ask the Japanese manufacturers how that’s been working for them), and the incremental cost to crank out 4K LCD panels isn’t that much.

Chinese panel and TV manufacturers have already figured this out and are shifting production to 4K in large panels while simultaneously dropping prices. You can already buy a 50-inch 4K LCD TV from TCL for $999. Vizio, who is a contract buyer much like Apple, announced at the show that they’d have a 55-inch 4K LCD TV for $1299 and a 65-inch model for well under $2,000.

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Vizio's 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Vizio’s 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Consider that the going price for a 55-inch 4K “smart” LCD TV from Samsung, LG, and Sony is sitting at $2,999 as of this writing and you can see where the industry is heading. My prediction is that all LCD TV screens 60 inches or larger will use 4K panels exclusively within three years. (4K scaling engines work much better than you might think!)

And don’t make the popular mistake of conflating 4K with 3D as ‘failed’ technologies. The latter was basically doomed from the start: Who wants to wear glasses to watch television? Not many people I know. Unfortunately, glasses-free (autostereo) TV is still not ready for prime time, so 3D (for now) is basically a freebie add-on to certain models of televisions.

4K, on the other hand, has legs. And those legs will get stronger and faster as the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) chips start showing up in televisions and video encoders. HEVC, or H.265 encoding, can cut the required bit rate for 2K content delivery in half. That means it can also deliver 4K at the old 2K rates, somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 20 Mb/s.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265  encoding and decoding into their products.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding into their products.

Nanotech's Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

Nanotech’s Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

While consumer demand for 4K is slowly ramping up, there is plenty of interest in UHDTV from the commercial AV sector. And Panasonic focused in on that sector almost exclusively in their CES booth. I’m not sure why – there are plenty of inferences here; most significantly, it would appear that Panasonic is exiting the money-losing television business entirely. (Ditto nearby Toshiba, which had similar 4K “applications” showcased and which also did not exhibit a line of 2014 televisions.)

Long story short; you may be buying 4K televisions in the near future whether you want ‘em or not. It’s a manufacturing and plant utilization issue, and if commercial demand for 4K picks up as expected, that will drive the changeover even faster.

As for sources of 4K content; Samsung announced a partnership with Paramount and Fox to get it into the home via the M-Go platform. Comcast had an Xfinity demo for connected set-top-boxes to stream 4K, and of course Netflix plans to roll out 4K delivery this year direct to subscribers.

I’m not sure how they’ll pull that off. My broadband speeds vary widely, depending on time of day: I’m writing this at noontime and according to CNET’s Broadband Speed Test, my downstream bit rate is about 22 megabits per second (Mb/s). Yet, I’ve seen that drop to as low as 2 – 3 Mb/s during late evening hours, when many neighbors are no doubt streaming Netflix movies.

Even so, HEVC will definitely help that problem. I spoke to a couple of Comcast folks on my flights out to and back from CES, and they’re all focused on the bandwidth and bit rate challenges of 2K streaming, let alone 4K. More 4K streaming interface products are needed, such as Nanotech’s $300 Nuvola NP-H1, which is about the size of an Apple TV box and ridiculously simple to connect and operate.

LG's got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don't know...)

LG’s got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don’t know…)

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays earlier. There were lots of OLED displays at CES, ranging from the cool, curved 6-inch OLED screen used in the new LG G-Flex curved smartphone to prototype 30-inch OLED TVs and workstation monitors in the TCL booth and on to the 55-inch, 65-iunch, and even 77-inch OLED TVs seen around the floor. (LG’s 77-inch offering is current the world’s largest OLED TV, and of course, it’s curved.)

OLEDs are tricky beasts to manufacture. Yields are usually on the low side (less than 25% per manufacturing run) and that number goes down as screen sizes increase, which explains the high prices for these TVs.

And there’s the unresolved issue of differential color aging, most notably in dark blue emitters. With current OLED science, you can expect dark blue emitters to reach half-brightness at about 5,000 hours of operation with a maximum brightness of 200 nits. Samsung addresses this quandary by employing two blue emitters for every red and green pixel on their OLED TVs, while LG has the more difficult task of managing blue aging in their white OLED emitters.

Several studies over the past three years consistently show people hanging on to their flat screen TVs for 5 to 7 years, which is likely to be a lot longer than 5,000 hours of operation. Will differential color aging rear its ugly head as early adopters shell out close to $10K for a 55-inch OLED TV? Bet on it.

Turns out, there’s another way to get wide color gamuts and saturated colors: Quantum dots. QDs, as we call them, are inorganic compounds that exhibit piezoelectric behavior when bombarded with photons. They emit stable, narrow-bandwidth colors with no drift, and can do so for long periods of time – long enough to work in a consumer television.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

QDs are manufactured by numerous companies, most notably Nanosys and QD Vision in the United States.  The former company has partnered with 3M to manufacture an optical film that goes on the backside of LCD panels, while the latter offers Color IQ optical components that interface with the entire LED illumination system in edge-lit TVs.

Sony is already selling 55-inch and 65-inch 4K LCD TVs using the Color IQ technology, and I can tell you that the difference in color is remarkable. Red – perhaps the most difficult color to reproduce accurately in any flat-screen TV – really looks like red when viewed with a QD backlight. And it’s possible to show many subtle shades of red with this technology.

All you need is a QD film or emitter with arrays of red and green dots, plus a backlight made up of blue LEDs. The blue passes through, while the blue photons “tickle” the red and green dots, causing them to emit their respective colors. It’s also possible to build a direct-illumination display out of quantum dots that would rival OLED TVs.

How about 4K display interfaces? By now, you’ve probably heard that HDMI has “upgraded” to version 2.0 and can support a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).  Practically speaking; because of the way display data is transmitted, only 16 Gb/s of that is really available for a display connection. Still, that’s fast enough to show 4K content (3840×2160, or Quad HD) with a 60 Hz frame rate, using 8-bit color.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here's an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here’s an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

Epson's Moverio glasses aren't as sexy as Google Glass - but then, they can do more things.

Epson’s Moverio glasses aren’t as sexy as Google Glass – but then, they can do more things.

Over at the DisplayPort booth, I heard stories of version 1.3 looming later this spring. DisplayPort 1.2, unlike HDMI, uses a packet structure to stream display, audio, and other data across four scalable lanes, and has a maximum rate of 21.6 Gb/s – much faster than HDMI. Applying the “20 percent” rule, that leaves about 17.3 Gb/s to actually carry 4K signals. And the extra bits over HDMI means that DP can transport 3840×2160 video with a frame rate of 60 Hz, but with 10-bit color.

Don’t underestimate the value of higher data rates: 4K could turn out to be a revolutionary shift in the way we watch TV, adding much wide color gamuts, higher frame rates, and high dynamic range (HDR) to the equation. HDMI clearly isn’t fast enough to play on that field; DP barely is. Both interfaces still have a long way to go.

So – why not make a wireless 4K connection? There were plenty of demos of wireless connectivity at the show, and I’m not just talking about Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most impressive was in the Silicon Image meeting room, all the way at the back of the lower South Hall, near the Arizona border.

SI, which bought out wireless manufacturer SiBEAM a few years ago, demonstrated super-compact 60 GHz wireless HDMI and MHL links using their UltraGig silicon. A variety of prototype cradles for phones and tablets were available for the demo: Simply plug in your handheld device and start streaming 1080p/60 video to a nearby 55-inch LCD TV screen.

Granted, the 60 GHz tech is a bit exotic. But it works quite well in small rooms and can take advantage of signal multipath “bounces” by using multiple, steerable antenna arrays built-in to each chip. And it can handle 4K, too – as long as the bit rate doesn’t exceed the HDMI 2.0 specification, the resolution, color bit depth, and frame rate are irrelevant.

This sort of product is a “holy grail” item for meeting rooms and education. Indeed; I field numerous questions every year during my InfoComm wireless AV classes along these lines: “Where can I buy a wireless tablet dongle?” Patience, my friends. Patience…

LG was one of many companies showing "digital health" products, like these LifeBand monitors.

LG was one of many companies showing “digital health” products, like these LifeBand monitors.

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But I don't think you'll see any of these in the near future...

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But you won’t see any of these in the near future…

The decline in TV shipments and sales seems to be offset by a boom in connected personal lifestyle and health gadgets, most notably wristbands that monitor your pulse and workouts. There were plenty of these trinkets at the show and an entire booth in the lower South Hall devoted to “digital health.”

Of course, the big name brands had these products – LG’s LifeBand was a good example. But so did the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. “Digital health” was like tablets a few years back – so many products were introduced at the show that they went from “wow!” to “ho-hum” in one day.

This boom in personal connectivity extends to appliances, beds (Sleep Number had a model that can elevate the head of the bed automatically with a voice command), cars (BMW’s i3 connected electric car was ubiquitous), and even your home. Combine it with short-range Bluetooth or ZigBee wireless connectivity and you can control and monitor just about anything on your smartphone and tablet.

Granted; there isn’t the money in these small products like there used to be in televisions. But consumers do want to connect, monitor, and control everything in their lives, and their refrigerators, cars, beds, televisions, percolators, and toasters will be able to comply. (And in 4K resolution, too!)

PointGrab can mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

PointGrab lets you mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Obviously, I didn’t visit the subjects of gesture and voice control. There were several good demos at the show of each, and two of the leading companies I showcased last year – Omek and Prime Sense – have been subsequently acquired by Intel and Apple. Hillcrest Labs, PointGrab, and other had compelling demos of gesture control in Las Vegas – a subject for a later time.

Summing up, let’s first revisit my mantra: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it. Televisions and optical disc media storage are clearly on the decline, while streaming, 4K, health monitoring, and wireless are hot. The television manufacturing business is slowly and inexorably moving to China as prices continue their free-fall.

The consumer is shifting his and her focus to all the devices in the home they use every days; not just television. Connectivity is everything, and the television is evolving from an entertainment device into a control center or “hub” of connectivity. The more those connections are made with wireless, the better – and that includes high-definition video from tablets and phones.

It’s going to be an interesting year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CES 2014: First Impressions (4K, Curved Screens, OLEDs, and All That)

2013 was an interesting year for television technology. LG’s long-awaited 55-inch OLED television started shipping, albeit with a curved screen. Not long after, Samsung announced their 55-inch curved OLED TV, but at a $6,000 discount to LG. Later in the year, Sony announced a curved 4K LCD TV, and rumors started that we’d see more such products in Las Vegas.

Did we ever! Not only did LG and Samsung showcase curved LCDs and OLEDs, so did Toshiba, Sony, Konka, Changhong, Hisense, and TCL. And three companies (LG, Samsung, and Toshiba) unveiled 21:9 aspect ratio curved 4K LCD TVs (there’s a mouthful!), all in a 105-inch diagonal size. (No word on where the LCD panel or panels come from).

We also were treated to newer, bigger sizes. 84 inches used to impress; now we have 95 inches, 98 inches, 105 inches, 110 inches, and even 120 inches. Yep, Vizio (of all people) exhibited a 120-inch LCD TV in their suite at the Wynn, and it uses ASV glass from Sharp’s Gen 10 in Sakai, Japan.

Sharp’s CES press conference emphasized big 4K TVs.

Want high dynamic range? Dolby was there to promote it, and we also saw it in the Vizio and Sharp booths. How about big OLEDs? LG has a 77-inch curved cut with 4K resolution that is currently the world’s largest OLED TV. (Wait a few months; that’ll change.) Quantum dots? Sony’s had them for a year, but now several Chinese manufacturers are buying in, as I saw in the QD Vision suite.

Just like tablets a few years back, large and curved TVs went from “Wow!” to “So what?” in the matter of a few hours at the show. What really amazed me is that almost every breakthrough TV product unveiled by Samsung and LG was also found in the booths of the Chinese TV manufacturers – and they didn’t nearly make as much noise about it.

Some TV manufacturers made more of an impression by what they didn’t show. Panasonic’s emphasis this year was clearly on commercial applications of display technology. We know that Panasonic shut down plasma panel and TV production at the end of December. What we don’t know are Panasonic’s plans for consumer television in general, as they didn’t show a formal line-up of LCD TVs in Las Vegas – just applications for 4K displays.

The significance of this omission can’t be understated. Panasonic finally reversed years of losses in 2013, losses that were largely attributed to television operations. While Panasonic had decent worldwide TV market share in 2013 (about 6%), they may have finally seen the writing on the wall. That would explain their emphasis on battery and energy technologies, automotive tech, and white goods / appliances at the show.

Toshiba has struggled with substantial losses in both computers and television. As has been documented in Display Daily, the company is finally addressing profitability in a more hard-nosed fashion. And if they needed any convincing, the enormous booths of Chinese TV manufacturers that were stuffed full of 4K product probably did the trick.

Samsung had the “first 105-inch curved 4K LCD TV.” So did LG and Toshiba…

That leaves Sony and Sharp. The former had a rather pedestrian booth at the show, focusing more on applications and smaller electronics (including gaming) than televisions. There weren’t any ground-breaking tech demos in Sony land this year, aside from curved 4K LCDs. Aside from one barely profitable quarter earlier last year, Sony continues to pile up losses in consumer TV sales and veteran financial analysts ramp up their call for the company to cut its losses and get out.

Sharp, on the other hand, may have more lives than a cat. The company has set record for financial losses the past few years and required cash infusions from Qualcomm and Samsung to keep their doors open in 2013. Yet, they managed to eke out a small profit in consumer televisions midway through the year.

While not out of the woods yet, Sharp is plowing forward with an emphasis on big TVs (60 inches and up). They unveiled four new lines – Aquos 2K, Quattron, Quattron+, and Aquos Ultra HD. We’ve heard the Quattron story before, but Quattron+ is something new and intriguing: Multiple addressing of horizontal and vertical sub pixels to achieve higher resolution than 2K, even though the Quattron RGBY matrix is still a 2K array.

Sharp is also making a big deal out of mastering IGZO manufacturing. (LG also uses IGZO in its 4K OLED TVs.) While IGZO yields are still challenging, the technology does offer many advantages over amorphous silicon and low-temperature polysilicon – not the least of which is reduced power consumption.

Vizio’s 120-inch 4K LCD TV is now the world’s largest.

So I left Las Vegas after 3.5 days with the following insights. (1) If we haven’t seen the sunset of the Japanese television industry, we’re very close to S-Day. (2) There really isn’t anything new under the sun, television-wise, that the Chinese brands don’t also have. (3) Large LCDs will migrate exclusively to 4K panel resolution within 2-3 years.

Finally, (4): Televisions just don’t generate much buzz anymore, particularly when you look at all of the tablets, smartphones, and personal electronic displays that were showcased at CES.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for more coverage of CES shortly.

The Diverging Fortunes of Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp: Is There Life After Television?

Last week; Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp announced their financial reports for Q2 2013. And it’s clear that all three would benefit from phasing out the production and sales of televisions.

Panasonic, who is on track to shut down production of plasma display panels by the end of the current fiscal year in March of 2014, turned in a strong performance and raised its operating profit forecast to $2.75B, according to a story on the Reuters Web site.

The company posted a net profit of $627M for the period from July through September, helped by strong sales of automotive and battery products. This number just exceeded an estimate of $621M by industry analysts.

The surge of black ink was helped by downsizing plasma TV operations, along with semiconductor and smartphone manufacturing. Panasonic also concluded a sale of 80% of its healthcare business unit to KKR for about $1.7B.

Not long after saying the company would increase shipments of lithium ion batteries to carmaker Tesla Motors by nearly 2 billion cells through 2017, Panasonic also announced it will exit plasma TV manufacturing, which along with its LCD TV operations lost $261M in the second quarter.

Down the road, Sharp (who operates the world’s largest LCD fab in Sakai, Japan) managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat and announced a profit of $138M for the same quarter, largely due to increased demand for solar cells and a weaker yen against the dollar.  Just one year ago, Sharp had a $5.5B net operating loss and required transfusions of cash from Samsung (2012) and Qualcomm (2013) to stay open.

While both companies have seen a steady decline in their worldwide TV market share (Panasonic dropped 26% from a 7.8% share in 2011 to 6% in 2012, while Sharp plummeted 22% from 6.6% to 5.4%), they’ve obviously figured out that it’s time to re-focus their efforts on more profitable products and are making progress in that direction.

Not so Sony, who evidently never heard Einstein’s famous definition of insanity as “…repeating an experiment and expecting different results.” Sony’s latest financials showed a net operating loss of $197M for the 2nd quarter, largely attributable to its TV operations. The fact that Sony Pictures also had a disappointing quarter didn’t help.

The TV group lost $95M between July and September after recording a $53M profit during the previous quarter. Sales of cameras, camcorders, and Vaio computers were also weak, with only smartphones showing any strength. The company also has high hopes for its PlayStation 4 platform, which will debut later this month.

Still, analysts aren’t convinced that Sony’s strategy to maintain its traditional consumer electronics products presence will work anymore. In a related Reuters story, Makoto Kikuchi, CEO of Tokyo-based Myojo Asset Management, was quoted as saying, “I still cannot see any fundamental and believable strategy for the rebirth of Sony’s electronics business. On the other hand Panasonic, which is shifting its business away from consumer electronics, is reporting better-than-expected results. The contrast is like night and day.”

Let’s be clear: Neither Panasonic or Sharp is out of the woods yet – far from it. Panasonic’s TV operations took an even bigger hit than Sony (-$261M) in Q2 ‘13, and Sharp is still sitting on the edge of bankruptcy. But Sony’s insistence on maintaining a losing CE presence may cost it dearly: Moody’s is apparently considering dropping Sony’s credit rating to junk status.

The fact is; Japanese manufacturers can’t sell TVs and remain profitable anymore; not as long as Samsung and LG maintain aggressive pricing and newcomers like Hisense, Haier, and TCL crash the party (not to mention discount giant Vizio).

And the move to 4K won’t help. Although Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic all have 4K LCD TVs at retail for about $80/inch, the Chinese appear primed for a 4K TV price war that they will inevitably win. Consider that without China, the worldwide market for TV shipments actually declined in 2012 by 4%. Add China to the mix, and it’s an eight-point upward swing.

To sum up; Panasonic seems to have gotten religion, while Sharp is still sobering up. But Sony apparently needs an intervention. Will disgruntled shareholders and/or downgraded credit and a higher cost of borrowing force the issue? Stay tuned…

It’s “Fade To Black” for Plasma and Projectors in Japan

Are we seeing the end of a golden era for display manufacturing in Japan? It sure seems so.

Earlier this month, Reuters published a story quoting sources inside Panasonic that state they are finally pulling the plug on plasma TV production. The exit is to be complete by the end of March 2014, otherwise known as the end of the company’s current fiscal year.

According to the Reuters story, Panasonic has been unable to stem the tide of red ink resulting from its television operations. In the past two fiscal years, Panasonic has lost $15 billion, with TV operations accounting for a $913 million hit in fiscal 2012.

I can’t say this decision was all that surprising. Ever since plasma TV shipments hit their peak in the mid-2000s, market demand has shifted rapidly to LCD technology. In fact, during FY 2012, there were more CRT TVs shipped worldwide (6.9% market share) than plasma (5.7% market share), according to NPD DisplaySearch.

Of course, LCD technology remains king of the hill with an 87.3% market share – an increase from last year, even though overall TV shipments dropped by 6% worldwide. And LCD still has plenty of legs – witness the advancements in TFT design (IGZO), backlights (quantum dots), and resolution (4K) that are now breaking into the market.

Panasonic is a strong player in LCD, and operates a Gen 8 fab that cranks out IPS-Alpha glass in Himeji, Japan. In fact, they shipped more TVs last year than Sharp and weren’t that far behind Sony.  But Panasonic had already idled a good portion of its plasma TV fab capacity by the start of 2013, including a brand-new facility in Shanghai and about 50% of its Osaka operations.

The departure of Panasonic may also result in Samsung and LG dropping plasma from their TV portfolios. For each company, plasma TVs remain the “value” product offering, with 60-inch LG 1080p plasma sets going recently for about $800 while equivalent 60-inch LCD sets with some bells and whistles command about 10% – 30% higher prices.

Still, the market for TVs is expected to continue a slow decline, thanks to shifting interest in tablets and smartphones for media consumption. There just isn’t any more time (or money) left to indulge small niche display technologies. It’s enough of a challenge for Japanese TV makers to approach profitability.

And things will only get worse. Japan can’t compete with Korea, and now has to deal with Chinese LCD TV manufacturers. In Q1, China was the only country to show an increase in LCD TV shipments Y-Y, while in the rest of the world, TV shipments fell by 4%.  The Chinese have enthusiastically embraced LCD manufacturing and are now cranking out big 4K panels, with the current world’s largest model (110 inches) coming from the CSOT fab in Shenzen. And they’re enjoying the strongest profit margins in the industry, too.

One result of this trend is super-cheap LCD TVs, often selling for less than $40 per diagonal inch. And the commercial AV channel has taken notice: Instead of specifying front projectors and screens, they’re putting in 70-inch, 80-inch, and 90-inch 1080p LCD screens instead. No more lamp changes, no ambient light issues, and “set it and forget it” operation – these are all strong selling points that financial and higher education markets have now embraced.

It’s hard to make a buck selling projectors – margins are very slim, and a great deal of product moves through distribution channels these days. Combine those thin margins with a trend away from front projection, and you have the “beginning of the end” for more than a few notable projector brands.

Consequently, Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions announced on October 11 that they were pulling out of the projector market for good, and also ceasing sales of large LCD monitors. Previously, the company had enjoyed good market share across a number of projector categories and even announced a new line of hybrid and “cloud” projectors at ISE and InfoComm.

Now, that’s all history. Mitsubishi will instead concentrate on tiled displays and videowalls, categories where they’re still profitable.  But they won’t be the last company to bid adieu to projectors: Sharp’s InfoComm and ISE booths have focused almost exclusively on large LCD displays, but they still list projectors on their Web site despite dwindling market share and continued struggles with red ink and underutilization of their huge Gen 10 Sakai LCD fab. How long before Sharp throws in the towel on projection?

These are not happy times for Japan Incorporated’s once-dominant TV industry, which is undergoing the same sort of painful downsizing the U.S. TV industry endured in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back in the day, Ernest Hemingway wrote a famous novel titled, “The Sun Also Rises.” If and when some future author records the last days of Japanese display manufacturing, that account could well be called, “The Sun Also Sets”…