Where Will the Next Disruptive Technologies Come From?
by Simon Jones
The displays we use today in our increasingly ubiquitous electronic devices are the result of the fantastic innovation and hard work of an army of display engineers over many years. A $100 billion industry has grown up that is only rivaled in terms of investment scale and technology advancement by the silicon-microchip business. The pace of progress is, if anything, accelerating as we will no doubt see again at SID 2007 in Long Beach. From this perspective, the display industry is an ongoing technological and commercial miracle.
Yet, what do we see if we look through the other end of the telescope? How good are today's display technologies at meeting the real needs of the user? Are they low enough in terms of power consumption? Are they cost effective? How are we doing on thinness, lightness, and robustness? What about readability across all potential viewing environments?
The fact is that we are nowhere near where we could be – yet. It is this gap between where we are and what users actually need when taken across the range of potential display applications that is the engine for a truly amazing level of investment and innovation in new display technologies. This is why the display industry is going to be an intriguing place to be for many years to come.
The vast majority of innovations that succeed in our industry are the ones that improve established technologies and manufacturing techniques. The investment case for a cost reduction or a performance enhancement of a liquid-crystal display (LCD) is comparatively straightforward. But what about those innovations that are not an improvement but a potential replacement of an established technology? How does the "disruptive technology" model apply to displays?
In his classic books and Harvard Business Review articles, Clayton Christensen originally coined the term "disruptive technology." In the model he described, a dis-ruptive technology that has initially inferior performance gets established by addressing niche applications that the dominant mainstream technology cannot address. The disrup-tive technology then improves at a faster rate than the existing technology and eventually challenges and displaces the established technology in the mainstream market.
For high-information-content displays, we have only seen one such transition, from the cathode-ray tube (CRT) to the silicon thin-film-transistor LCD (TFT-LCD). No other comparable display technology has succeeded on a similar scale as LCD technology. What characterized this transition? As we know, LCDs had a free run at laptop PCs, a burgeoning market where CRTs were not practical. This unlocked investment to scale-up the technology and achieve economies of scale, enabling LCDs to move on to displace CRTs in PC monitors and then TVs. This is a classic Christensen scenario.
Essentially, the same technology could also address smaller-screen applications including mobile phones and other handheld devices. So, in silicon TFT-LCDs, we now have a mainstream technology whose variants dominate high-information-content display applications from handhelds to mid-sized TVs. This technology has reached such a scale of investment throughout its supply chain that it presents truly formidable barriers to any aspirant disruptive technology. Who would bet against silicon TFT- LCDs maintaining its dominant position for a few years to come?
What about organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) displays, you ask? Isn't that a disruptive technology? OLED technology is obviously a technology that aspires to compete with LCD technology across a range of market segments. However, OLED technology is, from the outset, battling against LCD technology in every significant target market and is not, I would argue, a disruptive technology in the Christensen sense.
In fact, to identify a possible Christensen scenario, we need at least two things: (1) an initial display application that silicon TFT-LCDs cannot address and (2) an early-stage technology (or technologies) with great future potential that can address it.
A very interesting candidate for an application not being addressed by LCDs is electronic displays optimized for reading. Few people read text content on their laptops or mobile phones for any period of time; it is not a comfortable or pleasant experience. We do not do our bedtime or poolside reading on an electronic screen. So, although all our music and video is now digital, our text material for the most part is not. We still carry large amounts of paper around with us. However, there is increasing sensitivity to the environmental impact of "printing to read," and Plastic Logic's consumer research shows that people are increasingly less willing to make room for the weight and bulk of paper in their lives. The market for electronic reading devices enabled by flexible electronic-paper technologies is predicted by independent researchers (www.afaics.com) to exceed 46 million units by 2010.
First-generation electronic-reader products using electronic paper from E Ink are now available from Sony, iRex Technologies, and others, and are the first step in meeting this need. Though the displays on these devices look like paper and are power-efficient because the display is bistable, they still use an amorphous-silicon backplane fabricated on glass. This means that the device still has some of the key limitations of a classic silicon TFT-LCD because they are relatively rigid, fragile, and heavy. These limitations become more significant as screen size increases. Screen size, by the way, will have to increase from today's 6 in. to 8 in. in order to be suitable for reading standard U.S. letter documents and many other types of content such as newspapers.
For electronic readers to become adopted as part of everyday life, we need not one but two disruptive technologies. Firstly, we need a thin, light, robust, and probably flexible backplane technology to replace silicon on glass. Secondly, we need electronic-paper frontplane technologies that will be capable of color and, ultimately, video.
A flexible backplane solution is critical because it will enable the electronic reading device to get much closer to the reading experience of paper because the device itself can become thin, light, and shatter-proof – just like paper. This is the vision behind Plastic Logic's recent announcement of $100 million in fund-raising to commercialize electronic-paper display modules using its flexible-backplane technology. The backplane is fabricated by printing an array of polymer transistors on a plastic substrate at room temperature. Apart from enabling the display to be thin and flexible, the printing process is very low cost to re-tool for different shapes and sizes of display. This allows the dimensions of the display to be driven dynamically by consumer preference rather than manufacturing convenience.
Paper-like frontplane technologies as pioneered by E Ink, SiPix Imaging, Bridgestone, Liquavista, and others are progressing rapidly toward color and faster update times. Electronic paper has already passed the most important milestone of any new disruptive technology – it is in volume production.
The upcoming revolution in electronic reading displays and devices does not, by any means, signal the end of the silicon TFT-LCDs. However, it will represent a very significant application space that conventional silicon TFT-LCDs cannot address. This provides fertile soil for the development of genuine disruptive backplane and frontplane technologies, many of which are already in the early stages of commercialization and have tremendous potential for further development.
I am confident that the very significant investments being made by Plastic Logic and others in driving these technologies forward in the electronic-reader space will develop them at a faster rate than the relatively mature silicon TFT-LCD technology.
It is too early to predict exactly how and when the dominance of silicon TFT-LCD technology will be challenged. However, the electronic-reader market could do for the next wave of disruptive technologies what the laptop PC did for the LCD. The elements of a classic Christensen disruption may already be in place. The display industry is only going to get more intriguing. Stay tuned.