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What's the next big application?

Posted: 04 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:technology application? smart grid? touchscreen? OLED? MEMS?

Here's a list of the 10 technology applications you should watch for in 2010. They range from e-book readers reportedly being snapped up by consumers during the current holiday season to flashy but formative technologies not ready for prime time like 3D TVs.

We examine the features that make these apps so compelling as well unresolved issues that might keep them from breaking out in 2010.

MediaIdeas estimates that 1.1 million e-readers were sold in 2008 and that the number will swell to 6 million next year.

Writing the e-book story
E-book readers gained longer battery life, color touchscreens and market traction this year. Less certain is whether the still-pricey platforms will turn a page on volume growth and, in the process, present lucrative opportunities for chip suppliers in 2010.

Amazon and Sony have taken an early lead in e-book readers that could be tough to narrow, but traditional bookseller Barnes & Noble, Cambridge University spinoff Plastic Logic and a host of Taiwanese vendors (including BenQ and Foxconn) aim to try. There's been speculation about whether Apple might join the fray.

MediaIdeas estimates that 1.1 million e-readers were sold in 2008 and that the number will swell to 6 million next year. In-Stat projects that e-book shipment growth will result in a semiconductor market of $1.1 billion by 2013.

In November, Amazon upped the ante by unveiling two enhancements to the Kindle platform; the newest generation offers 85 percent longer battery life and a native PDF reader. The online retail giant also said November was the best sales month ever for the Kindle.

The story has been different at Barnes & Noble, which announced early this month that it was deferring in-store availability of its e-book reader, dubbed the nook, until it had fulfilled the preorders for the system. Higher-than-anticipated production costs have prompted Barnes & Noble to lower its forecast for the nook, which, unlike the Kindle, tucks a 3.5-inch color touchscreen display below its 6-inch black-and-white e-paper display (EPD).

E Ink, a subsidiary of Taiwan's Prime View International (PVI), supplies the EPD for both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble readers. EPD supply constraints have kept both display and reader prices high, which in turn has kept some cost-conscious consumers on the fence.

In this environment, Barnes & Noble may be paying for its decision to equip the nook with a touchscreen assembly that jacks up an already high bill of materials by $20 to $25. The touchsreen itself might not be worth the premium, since Gartner analyst Amy Teng noted that the nook "still can't fulfill consumer demand for bookmark insertion or note-taking intuitively and directly from the touchscreen."

Meanwhile, consumers aren't expected to be satisfied with black-and-white EPDs for long. "In another year we should see color EPDs in the market, though it will remain unsuitable for playing motion video due to slow response times," Teng predicted.

In a recent report, Teng wrote that "supply constraints around E Ink/PVI's EPD will be alleviated" soon and that costs would come down "as demand continues to rise and the number of suppliers increases."

Taiwanese vendors hope to hurry that process along, to some observers' concern. Though Taiwan is good at cost containment, quality sometimes takes a hit. If that holds true for e-books, dissatisfied consumers could decide to stick with their tried-and-true paperbacks and hardcovers, writing a sad ending for the young e-book market and its OEM and chip participants.

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