Panasonic to emphasize cameras, plasmas

Some say plasma is dead, but sales continue to climb for Panasonic, its CEO says.

LAS VEGAS--Yoshi Yamada, CEO of Panasonic North America, has three words for you: plasma, plasma and plasma.

The big-screen TV technology, which creates pictures by heating gasses, isn't going away anytime soon, he asserted during an interview at the Consumer Electronics Show here last week.

While analysts have predicted that plasma would begin to see its market share erode during the second half of the decade as LCD (liquid-crystal display) televisions get larger, plasmas will in fact become more popular as the average screen sizes increase, according to Yamada.

That's because plasma provides a superior viewing experience over LCD in televisions with screens measuring 40 inches or more, Yamada said. Large plasmas also remain cheaper to make. Plus, making a plasma TV only requires two days, he said, while popping out a similar LCD takes seven days.

"There is no comparison. This is an inherent weakness of LCD," he said.

Meanwhile, plasma technology has improved. Plasma used to consume much more power than LCDs, but now the power consumption comparison is quite close. Plasma manufacturers have cured picture burn-in and other problems associated with the technology.

"If it were five years ago, I would have agreed (with the critics), but the technology has changed every year," Yamada said.

The push on Plasma and other products is part of an ongoing rebirth at Panasonic. One of the giants of consumer electronics in the '70s and '80s, Panasonic became a bloated conglomerate after that. The company's Japanese headquarters kicked off reforms in 2001, and Yamada came to the United States to implement changes in the U.S. office.

Panasonic, of course, is somewhat biased when it comes to the plasma-LCD debate. Although the company makes LCD TVs (with its own technology to enhance image quality), Panasonic has allocated its labs, manufacturing and marketing groups for TVs around plasma. At CES, the company showed what is believed to be the world's biggest plasma screen to date, which measures 103 inches in diameter.

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The concentration on the plasma format in North America has already yielded results. Panasonic bounced around the rankings before 2004, but now it holds a clear No. 1 position with nearly half the market. In 2006, the company will tinker with different marketing ideas, like in-store Panasonic representatives, to draw interest to the format.

Other TV manufacturers that have chosen to concentrate on LCD or other formats, such as the SED (surface conduction electron emission) format coming from Toshiba, disagree.

"LCD will go up in screen size and picture quality," Rudy Provoost, CEO of Philips Electronics, said in a separate interview. Similarly, Philips has put its money into LCD plants.

Panasonic will also relaunch itself in the U.S. digital still camera market in 2006. Unlike Nikon, which touts image quality, Panasonic's distinguishing mark is image stabilization and eliminating camera shake. Many of the small cameras the company already sells in Japan will come here this year.

"We will triple our digital still camera business from 2005," Yamada said.

Panasonic also plans to release high-definition camcorders for consumers in 2007.

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