Sizing Up Pro Displays

The pro display market is getting bigger in terms of players and screen sizes. But that doesn’t mean opportunity for all, Tim Kridel reports

Call it public displays of affection – or affection for public displays: The out-of-home digital advertising market is booming worldwide, with $1.2 billion in spending in the U.S. market alone in 2006, according to estimates by Profitable Channels, an independent consultancy. That’s good news for AV pros and vendors targeting applications such as digital signage.

The bad news – at least for display vendors – is that the market in any region is hardly a slam-dunk. For example, the European market for digital signage and other pro displays isn’t a place where start-ups and outsiders can simply waltz in and start grabbing revenue.

“The reality is that each country in Europe has, especially in vertical markets, different players with different channels to market,” said Bob Raikes, managing director of U.K.-based Meko Ltd., which tracks the display market. “This makes it very hard to succeed unless you have a wide range of products over which you can spread the costs of operating in each country.”

Vendors such as NEC and Samsung can make a run at Europe because they sell a variety of consumer and pro electronics products – including displays – in multiple world regions. As a result, they tend to have bigger budgets for building brand awareness, and they can afford to take more risks or bear more losses while trying to build market share.

“[They] have a chance of success, but smaller companies that are focusing on a limited range of applications will always face a challenge,” Raikes said.

Consumer Begets Pro

Vendor entries and exits are among the market developments and trends that bear watching by AV pros. For example, more vendors means more competition and thus more pricing pressure, which is a plus for AV integrators because those savings can be passed on to customers or used to plump up margins.

One newcomer to the pro display space is Westinghouse. The company has built a reputation in markets such as the United States for consumer displays, particularly HDTVs, that provide stellar images at an affordable price. Now Westinghouse is trying to leverage its consumer side to enter pro AV.

“One competitive strength stems from the fact that we source so much glass,” said Rey Roque, vice president of marketing for Westinghouse Digital. “According to NPD, [an analyst firm], in 2006, we ranked No. 4 in the U.S market in dollar terms and No. 5 in volumes. So to achieve that kind of sell-through means we’re using a lot of glass. We buy from the top four fabs.”

Leveraging consumer for pro isn’t a strategy that’s unique to Westinghouse. In fact, the strategy likely will become more common.

“We do see moves by a number of vendors that are better known in the general TV market to start to want to enter the professional/commercial part of the TV market over the next few
Years,” Raikes said.

More Pricing Pressure, New Strategies

Although Westinghouse hasn’t announced plans for the European market, the company sees public information displays as one opportunity here and just about everywhere else.

“For some time, we’ve been looking at the overall growth in this space, and we see that as an opportunity,” Roque said. “We see the growth as pretty universal, regardless of geography, especially as a lot of hospitality looks to upgrade from CRTs to flat panels. We see public information displays as a growth opportunity pretty much on a global scale.”

But the more vendors that climb onto the pro AV bandwagon, the more pricing pressure increases. That trend is already well underway.

“Pricing pressure has been driven by the oversupply in the market, and this is likely to continue until the middle of 2008, when there could be an easing on price pressure as supply looks likely to grow more slowly in 2008,” Raikes said. “There could be a real shortage.”

In the short term, the more pricing pressure increases, the more profit margins start to thin out. That situation could squeeze out some display vendors, particularly those that can’t afford to wait until pricing pressure eventually eases the way Raikes anticipates.

“In projection, there should be consolidation as the tough pricing pressures mean that smaller players will be squeezed out,” Raikes said. “Fierce competition could mean that the smaller PDP players such as Pioneer and FHP are driven out of the market.”

That situation could prompt some new market strategies, such as content companies working with pro display vendors.

“A big help towards the development of the market would be closer cooperation between the hardware and media companies, possibly even to the level of joint ventures,” Raikes said.

Another strategy for combating pricing pressure is to develop product features or packages of services – such as consulting – in order to justify a premium or simply win the contract.

“The reality of the public display markets is that the display itself is now a relatively small part of the overall project cost,” Raikes said. “Additional features and custom designs are essential to be successful in the longer term in the professional large market space. Network connectivity and long lifetimes, as well as wide environmental specification, are likely to be increasingly important to professional users. High ambient and daylight performance will also become more important.”

Indeed, visibility in bright light is one reason why Westinghouse believes LCD is the best technology for grabbing a bigger share of the pro market, including public information displays.

“We believe that there’s no longer anything in the flat panel space can’t be handled by LCD technology,” Roque said. “So we’ll see a lot more LCDs in the larger sizes.”

As for network connectivity, some choices can actually limit the market for a particular display. A prime example is wireless: Although technologies such as 802.11 Wi-Fi are increasingly common in the pro AV space, they’re still niche plays compared to wired technologies such as fiber and coax and protocols such as DVI and HDMI. As a result, building Wi-Fi into digital signage in an attempt to stand out from the pack probably would backfire and actually limit the vendor’s ability to respond to pricing pressure and other market conditions.

“We’re trying to limit building very specific features into the product that aren’t universally required in multiple applications and multiple channels,” Roque said. “[Otherwise, they] become niche-oriented in terms of features and price positions.”

Instead, Westinghouse sees ease-of-use as one of the ways to win over AV integrators. For example, the company’s pro displays feature a “spine” of rear-mounted connectors. Although they’re located on the back of the display, the connectors face to the side. So unlike rival displays, which often have connectors that plug straight into the back, the Westinghouse display gives integrators a bit more flexibility, such as not having to de-mount the display to change a connector. That’s also one example of how Westinghouse hopes to compete on features rather than price alone.

“We’re not the lowest from an ASP [average selling price] standpoint in televisions in the NPD numbers,” Roque said. “We have U.S-based engineering that’s able to deliver certain features that are unique to the Westinghouse line. We expect to do the same thing in the commercial arena.”

How Big is Too Big?

More vendors isn’t the only way that the pro display market is growing. Another metric is size. For example, Westinghouse chose an 82-inch LCD as one of its initial pro products.

“It’s similar to the size of a lot of lightboards, so we see that as a ideal size for migrating lightboards to electronic signage,” Roque said. (The company’s initial line-up also includes displays in the 42- and 57-inch range.)

But the trend toward bigger displays has a few downsides, such as handling. At the June 2006 Society for Information Display (SID) Symposium, a Corning executive said that glass sizes larger than 3 meters are awkward to transport from glass plants to LCD fabrication facilities, or “fabs.” So, accommodating unique transportation requirements is something that might have to be factored into the display’s final price – in turn affecting its sales potential.

Glass isn’t the only material that impacts the market for large displays.

“For LCD, one of the challenges for larger displays is to get larger and wider films for polarisers, etc., for the larger LCDs that will be built into the future,” Raikes said. “At the moment, large LCD samples tend to have two films, and there may be a visible join. Panasonic is in commercial (although low-volume) production of its 103-inch PDP, so there are clearly no insurmountable
barriers for PDP at this kind of size.”

Another issue is the fabs themselves, whose construction and operational costs also have to be reflected in the display’s cost. In fact, fabs’ ability to keep up with the push for larger and larger displays could affect the number of vendors in the market.

“The key problem for the large-screen market is that in order to stay competitive, you need the largest and latest fabs,” Raikes said. “These cost huge amounts of money, and at the moment most of the LCD makers are not making enough profit to fund future expansions. And with losses or very low margins, it's hard to attract outside capital. While Sharp and Samsung look financially strong, other makers are less stable and for companies outside the top five, it's hard to see how they raise the cash for the next round of investment needed to stay in the business.”

One casualty so far is Beijing BOE Optoelectronics Technology Ltd., which is abandoning the large LCD market in order to focus on smaller, more profitable products, such as cell phone displays. That move is noteworthy partly because the company is the largest TFT-LCD maker based in a country known for its relatively low manufacturing costs.

Yet another challenge is that the larger the display, the more likely it is to be part of a project that’s heavy on customization. Custom projects usually have longer sales cycles, which can translate into higher overhead costs. The bottom line: For vendors and integrators alike, although the pro display market is getting bigger, so are the challenges to turning a profit in it.

Article Categories

Most Viewed