Paris 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, which is showing an LCD TV reference design at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA). The show opened in Berlin last Friday and runs through Sept. 3.
A concomitant trend that's transparent to consumers, but a glaring reality for chip makers, is the "transition from the 8-bit microcontroller to the 32-bit CPU," observed Rost. 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 traditional 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. Ltd., 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 chip maker's LCD business unit.
Leon Husson, executive vice president for consumer businesses at Philips Semiconductors, called LCD TVs "the most significant market opportunity" Philips 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, Calif.) forecasts a 74 percent compound annual growth rate for global LCD TV shipments through 2007, when flat screens could overtake CRTs in value or unit terms. Riddhi Patel, the firm's senior analyst, predicted the LCD TV market will grow 130 percent this year, to just over 3 million units.
The strong momentum behind the shift has taken chip makers 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, Micronas will offer an integrated solution within the next year, he said.
As traditional TV makers 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 PC displays and high-end projectors, are moving into the LCD TV segment. Samsung Electronics recently selected Pixelworks' video image processor IC
for a line of high-performance LCD televisions, according to Pixelworks. And Genesis Microchip said last week that Vestel Electronics, one of the Europe's largest electronics companies, designed Genesis' digital-video-format converter into LCD TVs that are being demonstrated at IFA.
David E. Mentley, senior vice president at iSuppli/Stanford Resources, said Pixelworks, Genesis, iChips, SmartASIC and Oplus are among the companies making 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."
Knowledge base, IP strength
Both Philips and Micronas hope to become dominant players by leveraging their global TV system knowledge and intellectual property, including existing TV chip 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's paired in the reference design with the SAA6713 scaler.
ST has 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 a companion chip for a scaler IC from companies such as Genesis or Pixelworks, said Jean-Yves Gomez, ST's TV division director.
For TV makers, ST will roll out a 32-bit CPU-based TV platform to replace the CRT RGB converter with an in-house LCD scaler. The platform will integrate chroma decode and video-processing functions.
While helping push the transition to flat-screen TVs, chip vendors must keep an eye on the transition to digital TV, which has proved a slow starter but is nonetheless a factor. The mandate for chip makers looking to enable both transitions is to ensure that TV makers can continue to exploit the investments they've already made in software and hardware.
"Quarter after quarter, midrange TVs are slowly disappearing," said Micronas' Rost. "Twenty- to 25-inch, single-scan, 4:3 aspect ratio analog CRT TVs are no longer attractive to anyone."
Aware of the trend, Philips has unveiled a home entertainment engine at IFA for hybrid digital televisions and home entertainment hubs. The PNX8550, integrating a MIPS RISC core with two TriMedia cores running at 240 MHz, can be used with the SAA6713 scaler to create a digital flat-screen TV. Because the system-on-chip is built on the same software environment as Philips' analog LCD TV reference design, "you can migrate to LCD TV while still protecting your investment in TriMedia," said Paul Martin, marketing manager of broadband IC solutions at the company.
While Philips and Micronas are counting on their large existing customer bases to secure shares of the LCD TV market, both realize they must also court the raft of Asian startups. "Instead of talking to 10 big TV set manufacturers, we now need to work with 50 different LCD TV vendors," Micronas' Zibold noted.
Chips for the global market must handle NTSC, PAL, Secam video processing and all broadcast variants in between, ST's Gomez said. "We need to ask how long it will take for [LCD scaler chip companies] to get all the know-how necessary to build a TV."
Anders Frisk, executive vice president and COO of Genesis, emphasized the importance of "the right scaling technology." Genesis' scaler includes deinterlacing and the company has integrated the home-theater technology of its Faroudja wholly owned subsidiary into its solution, he said.
Those offering "ease of integration, engineering support and a flexible software design tool kit" will win the LCD TV market, said Mentley. "An infinite number of features can be added to an image processor. Image quality is subjective. The trend is to build up a brand image from the processor."
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