In the buildup last week to Europe's largest consumer electronics show, the product category generating the most buzz was one that's going flat--that is, flat-screen. The venerable TV is seeing a spike in consumer demand, generated not by the arrival of terrestrial digital broadcasts or interactive applications, but by the platform's migration to the LCD panel.
"The transition most obvious to consumers today is not digital TV but flat-screen TVs," said Peter Rost, marketing director of digital TV at Micronas GmbH, whose company is showing an LCD TV reference design at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA), which opened in Berlin last Friday and runs through Sept. 3. A concomitant trend that is invisible to consumers but a glaring reality for chipmakers is the "transition from the 8-bit microcontroller to the 32-bit CPU," Rost observed.
Maintaining a coherent software development environment is a must during that transition, he said.
Meanwhile, the LCD shift is opening the TV market to scaler chip companies that have traditionally played in the PC and high-end projector arenas, potentially broadening the rivalry between the consumer and PC system camps.
Europe's three largest IC suppliers for TVs--Philips Semiconductors, Micronas, and STMicroelectronics--are pitching chips at IFA to ease the LCD migration. Philips and Micronas will show LCD TV reference designs. ST, working with Sanyo Electric Co., has developed integrated digital TV (iDTV) products using the ST20, a 32-bit system-on-chip platform designed for both CRT and LCD TVs.
Slated for an IFA demo in Sanyo iDTV products, the ST chip, the STV35x0, incorporates all TV front-end functions except audio processing and works with a scaler IC developed by the chipmaker's LCD business unit.
Leon Husson, executive vice president for consumer businesses at Philips Semiconductors, Eindhoven, Netherlands, called LCD TVs "the most significant market opportunity" the company will pursue in the near to midterm. "I think LCDs are going to replace CRTs in TV much more quickly than even [what's predicted by] the latest market research forecast," Husson said.
Market researcher iSuppli/Stanford Resources, San Jose, forecasts a 74% compound annual growth rate for global LCD TV shipments through 2007, when flat-screen TV shipments could overtake their CRT counterparts in value or unit terms. Riddhi Patel, the firm's senior analyst, predicted that the LCD TV market will grow 130% this year, to just over 3 million units.
Caught by surprise
The momentum behind the shift has taken chip manufacturers by surprise. Hermann Zibold, director of marketing for consumer products at Micronas, said his company would have been in a position to offer an integrated front-end TV/back-end scaler today if it had actually believed a market forecast two years ago that predicted the dramatic spike. Instead, the company will offer an integrated solution within the next year, Zibold said.
As makers of traditional TVs scramble to replace CRTs and CRT display controllers with LCDs and scalers, their PC display counterparts are looking for ways to add TV functionality to computers and improve their platforms' picture quality for TV input. Small but agile PC monitor companies from Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia are all jockeying to break into the TV market, spurred by a far lower cost of entry than for CRT TV manufacture.
Scaler IC companies such as Genesis Microchip Inc. and Pixelworks Inc., traditionally strong in the PC display and high-end projector market, are moving into the LCD TV segment.
David E. Mentley, an analyst with iSuppli/Stanford Resources, said that Pixelworks, Genesis, iChips, Smart-ASIC, and Oplus are among the companies manufacturing image processors for LCD TVs.
The parts "are more than scalers, as they handle deinterlacing, artifact removal, and color control," Mentley said.
The battle is joined, but it's far from over. "Many of the top-tier system makers still do their own chips," Mentley said, "so the merchant market for these products is just starting to take off."
Looking for leverage
Both Philips and Micronas hope to become dominant players by leveraging their global TV-system knowledge and intellectual property, including existing TV semiconductor solutions that cover progressive-scan analog TVs, hybrid digital/analog televisions, and high-end digital TVs.
The reference design that Philips is showing at IFA taps an existing global one-chip TV solution from the company. The chip, the PNX300x, enables digital processing in analog TVs. It is paired in the reference design with Philips' SAA6713 scaler.
ST, Geneva, has devised a two-pronged strategy to cater to traditional TV set manufacturers and PC display vendors. For the PC world, ST offers a digital chroma decoder integrated with a data slicer, zooming and picture improvement algorithms.
The part can be used as a companion chip for a scaler IC from companies such as Genesis or Pixelworks, according to Jean-Yves Gomez, ST's TV division director.
For TV manufacturers, ST is readying a 32-bit CPU-based TV platform that will replace the CRT RGB converter with an in-house LCD scaler. The platform will integrate chroma decode and video-processing functions.