July 2012 witnessed Qualcomm announcing a move away from the manufacturing of Mirasol displays, shifting plans from panel manufacturing to primarily focusing on licensing the technology. Mirasol is the trademarked name for what is a Micro Electro Mechanical (MEMS) based display technology reminiscent of Texas Instrument’s own Digital Light Processing technology, using an array of reflective mirrors as the pixilated display and incident or natural light as its light source. Of course the key difference to TI’s DLP approach being that the Qualcomm’s Mirasol design can also inherently generate color images from white light by virtue of its ability to reflect only specific wavelengths of light from “on” pixels. Mirasol is a low power display solution, requiring no embedded light source for display, and – by virtue of its inherent tuning capability for the wavelength of light reflected per pixel – also does not require external methods of color separation. The screens are full color, can show video and are touch screen capable. However, Mirasol-based displays suffer from relatively low color saturation and lower refresh rates than its LCD-based competition. Being a transflective technology, Mirasol offers better daytime, in-the-sun, readability and thus is directly applicable to eReader applications, where it also provides a color reproduction advantage against mainstay black-and-white eInk displays.
In recent years, Qualcomm has mostly targeted the Mirasol display technology at the eReader market, where the advantage of daylight readability, low power requirements, inherent color rendering capability, and video capability offer several distinct advantages compared to the primary display technology being used in that market segment, namely eInk displays. Qualcomm had showcased several new product announcements as recently as CES 2012, winning design-ins at Kyobo for a South Korean eReader design and also with a Chinese manufacturer Hanvon. While the eReader product category has been growing strongly in recent years, with 21 million devices shipped in 2011, up 300% from only 5 million in 2009, the category has suffered from overlapping capabilities and outstripped performance from newer media tablets since Apple’s 2010 launch of the iPad ignited that market. Since the release of Apple’s first iPad, the two largest suppliers of fixed-function eReader devices, namely Amazon and Barnes and Noble have began moving their product line more towards tablet-like devices such as the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, which require faster, brighter displays than Mirasol currently supports.
From a technology competition standpoint, existing LCD solutions, and still emerging OLED displays, represent significant challenges for alternative display solutions where video playback is increasingly a requirement. LCD panels in the 4” to 7” size range have steadily been able to increase performance while lowering their cost for many years now. IHS iSuppli has tracked a steady decrease of -10% annually for LCD panel ASP in this size range since 2007, and expects prices to decline in this space by another -5% annually over the next few years, helping to maintain TFT LCD’s competitive edge. Also, as OLED panel production continues to ramp, improvements in power efficiency, thinness and daylight readability for lightweight, no-backlight-required displays are also coming. These new OLED panels inherently provide enhanced color saturation performance, highlighting yet again another strong competitor to Mirasol in the mobile devices market.
While Qualcomm has been very successful at licensing IP in the past within the telecommunications semiconductor market, licensing a display technology which presumably will require ongoing investment by such licensees in panel sub-system manufacturing plants and equipment, is quite a different prospect from licensing ASIC soft and hard cores for integration with new IC designs. Whether Qualcomm can be successful with such a licensing approach in the midst of existing competition from LCD and OLED manufacturers with more mature product lines remains an open question in our view.
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