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Flat-panel screens steal show

As their prices continue to drop, flat-panel monitors have become stars of this year's PC Expo and the industry in general.

As their prices continue to drop, flat-panel monitors have become stars of this year's PC Expo in one of the industry's most radical design changes in recent years.

Relatively few conventional monitors can be found at the New York trade show, as companies rely on the sleek technology to draw attention and to pitch their wares. And the proliferation of the first sub-$1,000 models is helping flat panels expand into the mainstream market.

Even during what is traditionally the slowest quarter, flat-panel sales totaled nearly 22,000 in the first three months of this year, according to a recently published Stanford Research report. A year from now, sales will have expanded fivefold to 110,000, the report predicts.

That figure is dwarfed by the 7.6 million standard CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors sold each quarter in the United States. The bulkier desktop screen remains three to four times cheaper than its flat-panel equivalents, and CRT prices too have been falling.

Still, flat-panel manufacturers are already competing to establish themselves as market leaders, recognizing that production processes are improving and anticipating the time when flat panels will rival CRTs in price. IBM, NEC, and Compaq Computer dominated the first-quarter market, each claiming about 20 percent, while 13 other companies fought over the next 30 percent.

NEC sold mostly 14-inch models, Compaq's 15-inch offering edged out its 14-inch monitors, and leader IBM mostly moved 16-inch screens. Overall, about 45 percent of all flat panels shipped were 14-inch models, according to Stanford.

Just as there's no standard size, the industry is struggling to determine the right pricing. With the average price of a 14-inch model having declined from $2,285 to $1,670 from January 1 to March 31 alone--and the average cost expected to dip to $895 by year's end--some potential buyers are waiting to make a purchase, according to Stanford's Rhoda Alexander.

"We saw a real upswing in [in shipments] with the fall below $1,000," she pointed out, citing NEC, Viewsonic, and other companies that now list models below that price.

IBM's 14-inch model dropped from above $2,000 to about $1,100 in the past year, a company spokesperson noted.

While almost all flat panels are active-matrix screens, only about 11 percent are equipped with speakers (as compared with 16 percent of CRTs). But since flat panels are typically seen as space-saving devices enabling users to put their computer boxes under the desktop, the screens are likely to add multimedia capabilities for a minimal cost, the report says.

Combined, rapid growth, price drops, and still-improving technology could quickly shake up the market leaders, Alexander concluded. "The market is in its infancy, the field is very large, and there's a lot of competition," she noted. "It could change a lot by year's end."