End of An Era

THERE HAVE BEEN NUMEROUS EXAMPLES THROUGHOUT HISTORY OF THE obsolescence of certain technologies. The telegraph gave way to the telephone. Analog multitrack
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End of An Era

Mar 1, 2002 12:00 PM, NATHANIEL HECHT

THERE HAVE BEEN NUMEROUS EXAMPLES THROUGHOUT HISTORY OF THE obsolescence of certain technologies. The telegraph gave way to the telephone. Analog multitrack magnetic recording became obsolete with the invention of digital hard-disk recording technology. Now, the continual development of new video display technology is moving us closer and closer to the eventual extinction of the cathode ray tube in display devices.

The CRT has been with us for a very long time. Other than the telephone, I can't think of a modern electronic product that has had such a long life. With improved manufacturing and decreased costs, the CRT display dramatically dropped in price right from the beginning of the television era. CRT production left the United States completely by the 1970s thanks to rising U.S. labor costs and cheap labor in other countries. Prices have dropped so low that you can now purchase a basic 19-inch set for under $130 and still recognize the name on the label.

But many CRT manufacturers are now evaluating just how much longer they will be manufacturing tubes. Mitsubishi has become the first company to announce the discontinuation of tube manufacture as it shifts to other display technologies. At first, it seems puzzling that the CRT television is going the way of the dinosaur, what with prices getting lower and lower. However, the trend away from CRTs is not governed strictly by the laws of supply and demand, but by a combination of forces.

The first of these market forces is the proliferation of DTV. While DTV is not the same as HDTV (as David Mentley reminded us in February's “Line Out”), it is clear that conventional analog televisions will not receive digital signals without a decoder. While this won't make all existing CRT televisions obsolete, it is possible that many CRT owners will replace their existing sets with new sets that have decoding built in rather than investing more money in a separate decoder for an existing set. Though a consumer could still buy a CRT with decoding, more choices in higher-quality displays could cause consumers to look toward newer technologies.

Another market force to consider is the massive penetration of the television. Television exists in over 98% of all households in the U.S. (according to information compiled by TV Free America, from the A. C. Nielsen Company). With nearly complete market saturation, there are no new frontiers for CRT TVs. Also, the reliability of CRT televisions means they last a long time, so most people who are buying new sets are doing so to upgrade the quality of their experience rather than to replace something broken. Though CRT sets were certainly more profitable to the manufacturer than LCD, plasma and projection sets (due to competition from offshore manufacturers), consumers want to upgrade, so demand for CRT is falling.

Add to all of this the physical limitations of the CRT, especially in picture tube size, and we have all the factors working against the survival of the CRT. True, there will be some sales movement with innovative, flat CRT products, but ultimately the cost will continue to drop on current product offerings in LCD, plasma and projection television technologies to edge out CRTs. The floodgates have opened.

There will be many professional utility and scientific areas where CRTs will continue to have some market share, but for the most part we can chart the bell-shaped curve that marks the end of the CRT era and the beginning of a new one.

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