Friday, November 11, 2011

The Gorilla Glass Story

This story appears in the recent biography of Steve Jobs, "For the iPhone, the original plan was for it to have a plastic screen, like the iPod. But Jobs decided it would feel much more elegant and substantive if the screens were glass. So he set about finding a glass that would be strong and resistant to scratches. The natural place to look was Asia, where the glass for the stores was being made.

But Jobs’s friend John Seeley Brown, who was on the board of Corning Glass in Upstate New York, told him that he should talk to that company’s young and dynamic CEO, Wendell Weeks. So he dialed the main Corning switchboard number and asked to be put through to Weeks. He got an assistant, who offered to pass along the message.

“No, I’m Steve Jobs," he replied.

“Put me through.

” The assistant refused.

Jobs called Brown and complained that he had been subjected to “typical East Coast bullshit.

” When Weeks heard that, he called the main Apple switchboard and asked to speak to Jobs.

He was told to put his request in writing and send it in by fax. When Jobs was told what happened, he took a liking to Weeks and invited him to Cupertino."

The story is incorrect. I introduced Wendell Weeks to Steve Jobs,the original reason for the introduction was not gorilla glass and was at Wendell's initiative not Steve's. Wendell and I had had a discussion about another program at Corning. As a result of the discussion Wendell asked that I contact Steve and ask for a discussion. When Steve could not get through to Wendell he emailed me the "east coast bullshit" memo at Intel which I forwarded to Wendell. Wendell and I composed a response which he emailed to Steve requesting a dinner meeting at Kueletto's. Later, a friend of mine who worked at Apple wrote a short brief for Wendell before the meeting so he knew what to expect from Steve.

In truth, Corning had been reaching out to Apple for some time. In the early 1990's, Wendell's predecessor as CEO, John Loose, had sent me and two others out to Apple to brief them on the functioning of the display market. At the time, Apple's understanding of the display supply chain was very limited. Apple was still building a majority of their notebooks with monochrome displays when most of the competition had already switched to color. The returns to scale had already tipped in favor of color and monochrome's big discount was rapidly vanishing.

The story is telling in one sense, in that it was very easy for me to contact Steve Jobs while it was impossible for Steve Jobs to get through the Corning switchboard to talk to Wendell (east coast vs. west coast open communications). When I was fund-raising for Toprover, I reached out to Steve again and was able to get him to look at their web presentation on TV/home automation software. (Interestingly, the Toprover site and any presence it had in the internet archives has since vanished.) I also had the impression that he read some of the things I wrote for Visus et Veritas, or at least that we thought alike. A few years ago, before the retina display, I wrote an article stating that the screens for mobile devices had too few pixels to do justice to the apps that were being proffered. One of the things that Steve told Wendell was that if Corning was going to be a high tech player, they needed to have a presence in Silicon Valley. I had told Wendell 20 years earlier (before he was CEO) that Corning needed a lab in the valley.

(added) When IBM went looking for an operating system for its original PC, they investigated Digital Research's Disk Operating System (DR DOS). However, when the IBM people came to meet with the ownere of Digital Research, he was having too much fun sailing his boat around and missed the meeting. IBM decided that he was not serious about their business and went to Microsoft for their version of DOS and the owner of Digital Research eventually drank himself to death knowing that he could have been Bill Gates. Not being able to get anyone on the phone, Mr. Jobs would probably have ben even less inclined to call Corning back than IBM was for Digital Research. Reaching out first was key.

Norman Hairston

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SID 2011

What is SID?

The Society for Information Display (SID) holds its annual meeting once per year in May. This year it was held in Los Angeles, at the LA Convention Center. The annual meeting, also known as SID, is the place where the companies that actually make the displays (rather than the TV set makers or marketers) show off their latest and greatest technology. In-spite of the fact that virtually all of the displays are made in Asia, SID still has significance in that the US is viewed as a pioneering market, where new applications are developed. Consequently many of the major producers from overseas participate in the show. The show consists of many sessions of both technical and business whitepaper presentations as well as an exhibit of actual devices.

The Touch Show

This year's SID was predominantly a touch show. Many of the booths of both larger and smaller companies featured either the latest touch technology or touchpanel controller chips. With respect to the touchpanels themselves, If you are not familiar with the term, the IPhone and IPad used a technology called “Projected Capacitive” touch. Of all of the touch panels that have been shipped, this technology represents the vast majority of shipments. However there were other technologies represented including various optical techniques. Optical technologies have advantages over capacitive in some markets in that they can do larger sizes and are potentially extensible into areas such as gesture recognition. Barring any technology breakthroughs, the touch technology for the livingroom TV set appears that it will be optical.

Although there will be continuing innovation in the TV set itself, much of the innovation going forward will be in how you interact with the set and for what purposes. New input technologies and new services delivered through the TV is the future. The optical touch technology is extensible into gesture recognition and ultimately into facial recognition and more human interaction

In addition to the panels themselves, there were many Silicon companies at SID showing improved touch panel controllers. Everyone had a different figure of merit, the yardstick by which they prefer to be judged. To my own thinking, energy efficiency is always the ultimate in mobile devices.

LCD Developments

With respect to the displays themselves, LG introduced their FPR technology which eliminates two of the major drawbacks to current 3D technology, expensive glasses, and problems viewing them with your head tilted or inclined. FPR uses circularly polarized passive glasses that can be worn as a clip on for those of us that already wear glasses. The picture was excellent; no flicker at all.

Several companies showed Autosteroscopic (Glasses Free) 3D. The displays were generally effective but had very narrow viewing cones and most of the displays placed footprints on the carpet to tell you exactly where to stand. All of the exhibits used lenticular coatings or some sort of shutter to present different views to each eye. Barring some significant invention, this approach may inherently be for single users only.

Samsung showed a field sequential color (FSC) display. The display does not entirely get rid of the color filter, but FSC does hold the promise of greatly increased energy efficiency. The old joke about LCDs is rather than generating an image they throw away light and throw away more light until you get down to the image that you want. With Field sequential color, you are potentially more than double the light that you keep. 3M showed a diffuser tape for the edge of the waveguide (the thing in back of the LCD that provides the light). The diffuser tape enables fewer LEDs to be used in an edge lit LED design. Finally, on the improved energy theme, Nanosys showed vastly improved “Quantum Dot Phosphors” for LEDs that had both better brilliance and more saturated colors. The difference in performance over normal phosphors was shocking considering how long and how slowly display technology develops. The Quantum dot phosphors have the potential to be as big an innovation as black matrix did for CRTs. Nanosys won a “Best of Show” award for their demo.

Other Display Technologies

For a technology that is touted as overtaking LCD in the next few years, there were surprisingly few demos of Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs). OLEDs were supposed to be the technology of the future, just as Field Emission Displays (FEDs) were a decade ago, offering better viewing angles and better optical efficiency. However, LCDs got better to the point where further development of FED technology no longer made sense. As per the above, LCDs are still getting better and OLEDs have a limited time window before LCDs are too far down the cost curve and up the performance curve for OLEDs to compete.

Pixtronix showed their Mems (Micro-elecrto-mechanical) shutter display wich looked fantastic and has the potential to be extremely low power. Qualcom was there with their Mems mirror display as well. Given a nearly 50 year head start, it will be hard for any of these technologies to displace the LCD from non-mobility markets. However it is not a given that it will be OLED technology that becomes the new king of displays.

Upshot for TV

The impact of the technologies that were shown at SID will be that the livingroom TV will continue to get more energy efficient which can enable higher resolutions, brighter sets and more saturated colors. 3DTV, still in its infancy, will get much better and the expensive shutter glasses will be going away. Over the Top (OTT) applications will be enabled by improved optical efficiencies of both LCDs and newer technologies such as Mems and OLED and sunlight readability will improve. I have been to SIDs in the past where there was not much that was new. This one, for someone in the industry, offered a lot of genuinely new and useful innovation much of which I expect to see in the market almost immediately.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Will the Earthquake in Japan Affect TV Set Prices?

No. As the US was supplanted by Japan in consumer electronics, Japan has been subsequently supplanted by Korea and, increasingly China, in consumer electronics manufacture, including TVs. In fact, Japan has become a net importer of consumer electronics. Had the earthquake struck further south, there are some LCD component factories that could have been impacted as well as two large size LCD factories. However, these facilities seem to be undamaged.

While the loss of life is to be mourned and the loss of housing and its contents has to be replaced, most probably the net effect will be neutral as the loss of production from Japan is off-set by the loss of demand as Japan rebuilds.

If you would like to donate to the relief effort, please contact the Red Cross by clicking on the title link at the very bottom of this page.

Best Wishes

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Graf Spee

By Norman Hairston

There is an analogy that I often use to describe computing devices, they are like warships. There are Notebooks, which are something of the battleships of the current era, tablets which equate to cruisers (pretty much literally) and cell phones which are the destroyers in this rubric. Generally what defines a warship, at least in the WWI-WWII era, was how thick the armor was and how big the guns were. A battleship generally had 14-16” of armor and had 14-16” diameter guns. This was a “balanced design. Cruisers had less armor and smaller guns, generally 8” armor and up to 8” guns. Destroyers had 5” guns but only an inch of armor; they were the light and fast members of the fleet. At least until WWII they were also something of a disposable item, being used to screen the larger ships. The US built close to 800 destroyers during WWII but only 10 battleships. In my analogy, the armor, how big and heavy the ship was could be thought of as computing power while the size of the guns, the business end of the ship, can be likened to screen sizes.

Although there were general rules about the proportions of ships, guns to armor, there was also some experimentation with unbalanced designs. There were battle cruisers, gunned like a battleship, armored like a cruiser. There was the opposite, the Scharnorst class, armored like a battleship gunned like a cruiser. There were battle-carriers, battleships that had small fleets of plains, and there were the German pocket battleships, gunned like a battleship armored like a destroyer. Some of the ships with these unbalanced designs became quite famous… usually because of their sinking at the hands of more standard fare.

I am reminded of this analogy by current events in the cell phone market. As cell phones become more and more powerful, the limitations of their screens become more constricting. As a consequence, the next generation of smart phones, the Iphone 5, look to have a minimum of a 4” screen, with some being even larger. The size of the screens starts to blur the difference between what is a cell phone and what is a tablet PC with a cellular connection.

Personally, I carry my cell phone around in my pocket and the current generation of smartphones is already to large for me. The breakage issue that some smartphones have had calls to question, what is the likely breakage rate for phones with 4 and 5” screens? Even if the breakage rate were zero, again, these sizes are a bit much to carry in your pocket.

This is not to say that very large phones do not have a bright future. The marketing industry is salivating over the degree that they can push-market goods and services to smartphone owners that happen to be walking by. No doubt the revenues provided by the marketers and by those selling apps or mobile services will guarantee continued growth of the smartphone market, if not the phones themselves, for some time.

This points out the flaw in my analogy. I have likened smart phones to the pocket battleships. Of course the pocket battleships were a design failure in that they did not accomplish their goals. They didn’t last very long when confronted by ships of more conventional designs. They were rapidly obsoleted by submarines that could accomplish the same tasks with much smaller platform. However, unlike a warship that is expected to last for 20-50 years, smartphones are supposed to go down in flames after only a few years. They are built and sold with the concept that they will be obsolete in 3 years. Industries can do that when they have a continuing stream of innovation and provide consumers with compelling reasons to toss out the old and embrace the new.

While smart phones are already very big and getting bigger, I have no doubt that small will be in and the next generation of smart phones with the 5” screens will be referred to as dinosaurs. He newer larger phones will look great sliding down the ramp; but I expect that there is a right size for a mobile phone, a balanced design, and that these balanced designs will ultimately win out.