Is Plasma Technology on the Decline? 
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Written by Dick Ward   
Thursday, 26 February 2009

By now we’ve all heard the chatter.  Whenever two different types of technology are in competition with each other, there’s a tendency to declare a victor, and every media outlet wants to be the first to make the call.  The long standing rivalry between LCD and Plasma displays is no exception, and seems to have come to a peak in recent weeks as early this month; both Vizio and Pioneer announced the end of their Plasma television lines.

Between the two brands, the main scope of television purchasers is covered.  Vizio, famed for their highly affordable entry level units, covers a fair portion of what we’ll call the casual crowd.  Pioneer of course caters to not only the casual consumer but the enthusiast looking for the best money can buy.

As early as January 2007 articles appeared online declaring the LCD format as victorious, but this may be the first time that there’s been anything more than mere speculation to go on.  While Vizio’s pullout might not mean much to the higher end consumer it does equate to a portion of Plasma sales that may end up as LCD purchases.  More consumers are buying their first HDTVs to keep up with the changing television landscape, especially with the new DTV transition deadline looming 3.5 months away.

Of greater interest to the high end consumer though, is that this spells the end of the beloved Kuro line.  One of the most well reviewed Plasma sets on the market, and often called the best of the bunch by reviewers and enthusiasts alike, this is surely a blow for Plasma technology.  

With Pioneer and Vizio, both in the top 5 makers of Plasma displays by volume, Panasonic, LG, and Samsung are left as the big name Plasma manufacturers.  Of these three, each one makes LCDs as well, and would seemingly have financial stability if and when they decide to eliminate Plasma televisions from their lineup.

Plasma displays have always been touted as the better of the two technologies, with contrasts that LCD can’t even come close to and amazingly accurate colors.  Celebrated as it was and held by most as the superior format, it’s a wonder that Plasma seems to be heading the way of Betamax.  There are a lot of factors that go into this, from pricing and decisions on the corporate level all the way down to consumer knowledge.

Plasma display

 Barriers for Acceptance

The first and quite possibly biggest issue facing Plasma is the early bad press the TVs got.  Casual consumers don’t research the way enthusiasts do, and they certainly don’t know what they want before visiting the store.  They ask their friends and they ask often uninformed salespeople.   The average consumer knows a few ‘facts’ about Plasma televisions, prime among them is that their screen will burn in and forever retaining the image of the ESPN scrollbar.  

Anyone that’s done even a bit of research on the subject knows this hasn’t been a problem for years, but the initial news reports stick in the average consumer’s head.  Walking through an electronics store, it’s still commonplace to hear the stories of horribly burnt in televisions, even from people who should know better.  Unfortunately for the Plasma market, no one seems to have gone out of the way to educate the buyers about this.   By failing to properly address the problem and simply ignoring the bad reputation, much of the public, wading through technology that they don’t totally understand, take the tidbits they remember and insist on LCD.

LCDs also have the distinct advantage of being generally cheaper to make.  This is clearly a great increase in profit margin, but that only explains companies pulling out, not the better sales figures.  That is, until commissions are figured into the picture.  Sellers of high end televisions, including some of the big box locations, get paid on a commission basis, and the bigger the commission, the more likely they are to push the product.   Money is a great motivator, there’s no way around it.  But the sheer volume of LCD purchases likely outweighs the higher commission rates of more expensive Plasma TV's.

Pioneer Kuro 1

 Perhaps even more helpful for LCD televisions is the familiarity that so many consumers already have with them.  Nearly every office worker is now working on an LCD monitor, using a laptop featuring an LCD, and upgrading to a nice LCD on their home computer.  It’s simply not a stretch to bring that knowledge into the living room.   Familiarity means a great deal to people.  When faced with the choice of a reliable technology that’s familiar and something they just don’t know much about, the average consumer will forego any technical advantage and take the devil they know over the devil they don’t.

Finally, it’s the stores themselves that do a majority of the damage, not through uninformed salespeople but through the way the televisions are displayed.  With contrast and brightness pushed to ridiculous levels, LCD televisions look absolutely phenomenal sitting next to their dull Plasma counterparts, which are reflecting the huge store lights right back at the potential customer.   These aren’t levels that anyone would actually use at home, nor do most people have ultra bright fluorescent lamps lighting their living rooms while watching TV.  

Of course, Plasma technology could be in trouble regardless, due to the current concern over power usage and green technology.  The European Union is already on the forefront of this movement, taking steps to ban televisions that don’t meet certain required energy standards, which means the power hungry Plasmas will be losing out.  Expected this spring, the new law will not only outlaw high energy consuming televisions, it will enforce a mandatory labeling system.  In an increasingly energy conscious public, purchasing a television at the high energy end of the scale could be seen as a bit of a faux pas.

Similarly, in the US, measures are being taken to conserve use of electricity wherever possible.  There has already been an end date set in place for certain light bulbs in favor of more energy efficient models, and televisions may be next.  While nothing has been set into motion on a federal level, some states are taking it into their own hands.

The California Energy Commission is working on creating a standard that would be even stricter than the one being carried out in the EU.  Part of the proposal will include labels to show California consumers the amount of money saved on energy bills.  The first round of regulations is set to go into effect in 2011 if the new standards are passed, with a second wave coming just two years later.  If the CEC’s plan is indeed more extreme than that of the European Union, Californians may be kissing their Plasmas goodbye.

Pioneer Plasma Kuro

Solutions?

There’s heavy opposition working Plasma technology on various fronts, but it’s not dead yet, not by any means.  While Pioneer was certainly a well known and respected name in the Plasma game, they only had a 5% market share.  LG, Samsung and the market leader Panasonic are still making Plasma televisions.  They’re all capable of making TVs that are high quality and affordable, and capable of making the next amazing Plasma, but to survive, they’re going to have to take some steps.

First and foremost, there needs to be a strong campaign to correct the misinformation surrounding the technology.  Plasmas don’t burn in from regular TV watching and game playing, and even if somehow a screen does start retaining images, there are ways to take care of it.  Companies also need to encourage consumers to take care of their televisions as if it were a thousand dollar investment, which conveniently enough, it is.

Companies need to work with stores to ensure the best viewing areas for their TVs.  Just as DLPs suffered horribly in image quality when customers hovered a foot away from them, Plasmas are up against unrealistic lighting and ultra bright LCD settings.  Say what you will about big box type stores, Best Buy is at least attempting to pull this off with their higher end Magnolia sections of stores.  With a smaller ceiling, dimmer lighting, and appropriately placed seating, it’s an excellent place to get a good feel for the real difference between LCD and Plasma.  Adding to that, rather than a store feed of commercials, Blu-ray players are often hooked up showing not just the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but movies that look great in high definition.

Finally, and possibly the most difficult adaptation, is that of power consumption.  There’s no doubt that Plasmas need more power than LCDs, and while to the average consumer it may only mean a dollar or two a month on the electric bill, to an ever increasingly green thinking populace, it makes a huge difference.  If laws such as that being proposed by the California Energy Commission are passed, many Plasma sets would be outlawed as they stand now.

So is the time of the Plasma over, is it a dead technology?  Not quite yet.  As long as there are educated consumers buying them, Plasma will stick around.  With some changes, Plasma could make a huge comeback; otherwise it will remain sadly niche.

 






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