The trouble with tubes

Steve Jobs likes to introduce new iMacs with an obit.

When the first model was launched in 1998 and users got over the revolutionary colour of the machines, they suddenly noticed the lack of a floppy drive. Despite the steady grumbling that followed until Iomega introduced an iMac-comptatible

portable drive, Jobs was dismissive. “”Who do you know today that uses a floppy drive?”” he asked.

Actually I do, not that it matters. The genius of people like Jobs (and, by extension, Apple) is that he creates not so much a product but a club. He is the author of a “”Who’s in/Who’s Out”” list for the IT sector. The latest casualty: cathode ray-tube monitors, or CRTs.

Just look at the fawning cover line of this week’s Time Magazine story about the new iMac (“”Flat-out cool!””) and the accompanying photo of Jobs peering out from the liquid crystal display (LCD). He’s on the inside, where the future lies. “”The CRT is dead,”” he told the Macworld Expo crowd this week. It is always dangerous to sound the death knell for technology that has been a mainstay of the industry for decades, but Apple has a way of successfully turning its back on what it considers behind the times. Think indifferent.

In this case, there is considerable evidence to support his claim. A few months ago market researcher Stanford Resources predicted the CRT market would decline to just over US$10 billion in 2007 from a high of US$19.5 million two years ago. In the second quarter of last year, Toronto-based Evans Research reported a drop in CRT unit shipments of 20 per cent, while flat-panels shot up 75 per cent.

On the other hand, CRTs still account for 99 per cent of the overall Canadian monitor market, which Evans says grew 7.5 per cent last year. This is a classic case where analyst firms, resellers and (I’ll admit it) the media push customers into an upgrade path because it serves all our interests. If you have to talk about monitors, it’s a lot more interesting to talk about LCDs, which offer so many space-saving opportunities and innovative design features.

I walked by a small booth at last year’s Comdex Fall where a young company was demonstrating a flat panel (about 15 inches) in a case that looked like a shield. Above the display was another, smaller display, which allowed users to watch a security camera, for example. Try that trick with a CRT and all you’d have is a pair of TVs sitting on top of each other.

There seems to be a consensus among monitor experts that flat-panel LCDs will one day dominate because a) they will become more affordable and b) they look better, weigh less and take up less space. Price will absolutely be a critical factor here — membership fees for the LCD club are high — but it won’t sweep the world by storm for some time. We have already witnessed the first-ever decline in PC sales in this country, and it going to take more than a skinny monitor to change that.

As for appearances, most enterprises don’t seem all that concerned about clearing up desk space. If they were, thin-client computers might have gained more traction in the last three years. There are obviously some other factors about the way applications are managed which has hindered thin-client growth, but the real estate argument that vendors touted was the same one we’re hearing about flat-panels now.

Before everyone gets too excited about LCDs, we should wait until designers manage to achieve the same kind of resolution flexibility that CRTs enjoy. Without decent graphics power flexibility may not matter, but a good PC hooked up to a CRT can usually produce the best possible images. The fixed resolutions of LCDs, on the other hand, may not suit increasingly sophisticated desktop users who want hardware customized to their needs.

The devil is in these kinds of details, and in this case they may prove CRTs’ guardian angel.

sschick@plesman.com

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