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Taiwan gets into notebook screens

New entrants to the market will challenge Japanese and Korean firms and possibly drive prices down.

Taiwanese companies will begin manufacturing notebook displays in the next two years, a development that would challenge Japanese and Korean market dominance and possibly drive prices down.

Three Taiwanese companies, Chunghwa Picture Tubes, Teco Optoelectronics, and Inipac Optoelectronics, will start mass production of 12.1- and 13.3-inch thin film transistor liquid crystal displays (TFT-LCDs) in late 1998 and 1999, according to the online edition of Nikkei Business Publications. Two other companies may also enter the market for "active matrix" notebook screens, which suggests these manufacturers all believe they can undercut the currently expensive price points.

Active-matrix screens are high-quality LCDs found in midrange and high-end notebooks. They cost more than dual-scan (or passive-matrix) screens, but deliver superior lighting and graphics. Dual-scan screens come with low-end notebooks. Desktop monitors typically use cathode ray tube (CRT) technology.

Starting in the late 1980s, Japanese manufacturers such as Sharp, NEC, and Toshiba were foremost in LCD production. (IBM, the only significant U.S. player, does all of its production in Japan.) In 1995, however, South Korea's Samsung and Hyundai entered the market, which increased supply and consequently lowered prices. The entrance of Taiwanese manufacturers would likely have the same effect.

LCD displays were a hot top at Fall Comdex '97, but not because of notebooks. IBM, Samsung, Mitsubishi, and others showed 14- and 15-inch-class "flat panel" displays that can serve as elegant, lightweight desktop monitors, saying that recent production breakthroughs should begin reducing the cost of these pricey units and allow them to start replacing CRT monitors next year. Currently, the unit price of a flat panel LCD monitor is about seven times that of a CRT monitor.

Also at Comdex, Toshiba displayed a 12.1-inch active-matrix notebook screen manufactured using what is called the low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) process. According to Toshiba, the LTPS screen shows more information with more brightness than LCDs of comparable size, weighs less, and could cost as much as 60 percent less than their predecessors once volume manufacturing begins in 1999.

These advantages derive from what Toshiba calls the "system-on-glass" design. In this scheme, the circuitry needed to drive the display is sandwiched between glass and plastic. Smaller screens have been made with the new process, but Toshiba is the first to make a notebook-sized screen.

Taiwan is sometimes called the "kingdom of notebook computers" because of its volume production, but as much as 35 percent of LCDs found on Taiwanese notebooks are from Japan.