Setting aside their competitive differences, a group of PC OEMs last week hammered out a new set of standards for notebook flat-panel displays that is expected to dramatically simplify procurement, assembly, and inventory management for systems makers.
Working at a feverish pace, the Standard Panels Working Group (SPWG) rallied display suppliers to the cause, and in less than a year created new electrical and mechanical interface guidelines for 13.3-, 14.1-, and 15-in. XGA-resolution thin-film-transistor LCD modules.
The standards are especially welcome given the LCD supply shortage facing PC makers, which analysts project will last well into next year. Without a common blueprint, PC manufacturers were left to choose between dozens of similar but incompatible displays for their notebook lines. When first addressing the issue at a conference last December, a Dell Computer Corp. executive said an investigation of available 12.1-in. panels returned 109 different products.
"It seems like it will get product to market faster," said Ross Young, an analyst with DisplaySearch Inc., Austin, Texas, which advised the SPWG as a third-party representative. "Customizing notebook panels for each manufacturer was not in the industry's best interest."
The new electrical-interface standard defines the I/O and backlight connectors, the use of LVDS (low-voltage differential signaling), Enhanced Extended Display Identification Data (EEDID), and the PC '99 version of the display-data-channel interface, as well as pin assignments and power sequencing. On the mechanical side, the group ratified a set of common connector and mounting-hole locations, cable lengths, and XY screen dimensions.
While flat-panel makers are still free to differentiate their products through power consumption, brightness, viewing angle, weight, and other features, the introduction of universal design elements should significantly streamline the procurement process, according to industry observers. OEMs will also be able to second-source displays from vendors whose devices were previously incompatible.
"During a shortage, a PC maker may not get everything it needs from Samsung, so it'll go to LG," Young said. "But LG's panels may have different XY dimensions or mounting holes. The notebook manufacturer then has to retool and make modifications to use the new panel, and it really slows things down and adds cost."
In addition to simplifying OEM purchasing, the standards are expected to reduce tooling modification and assembly expenses and cut inventory overhead by eliminating the need to carry multiple versions of a given display size.
The SPWG is eventually expected to cede the standard to an independent industry association, possibly VESA, according to Young, who said future versions of the specification may address timing issues and the use of a standard integrated inverter.
The group is composed of procurement and engineering ex-ecutives from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., and Toshiba Corp., which together account for more than 50% of notebook-PC market share, according to DisplaySearch.
OEMs should begin using the new guidelines by the second half of 2000. The standards are available on DisplaySearch's Web site at www.displaysearch.com/SPWG.