Europe's Electronics Firms Defy Old Dinosaur Image

NOT too long ago, talk in consumer electronics circles was all about Japanese manufacturers. Europeans were dismissed as inflexible dinosaurs doomed to extinction.

But 1993 company statistics released recently by the French giant Thomson Consumer Electronics and Dutch behemoth Philips Electronics appear to demonstrate that old mastodons - even European ones - can learn new tricks. Thomson returned to slight operating profitability ($26 million) after three years of losses, while Philips, though still in the red, slashed staggering 1992 losses to $40 million in 1993.

A year ago, electronics analysts said Thomson risked going under, but in announcing 1993's more promising results, company chief executive officer Alain Prestat said, ``The balance in electronics is swinging back to the West, [and] the Europeans master better than anyone else out there the current technologies.'' The European turnaround is occurring while results for such Japanese giants as Sony and Matsushita, although still largely positive, have slumped.

The picture does indeed look bright for the two big European companies: Thomson and Philips are seen as well-placed to capture a brontosaurus share of the soon-to-open, high-definition television (HDTV) market. The Japanese recently abandoned the fight to impose their analog system as the global standard for HDTV, while the Europeans are ready to go with a digital system being developed in the United States.

The European advance is so uncontested that Sony now plans to buy Thomson's technology for the HDTVs it will produce. Thomson, meanwhile, will produce its own sets under the numerous brands it owns around the world, including RCA in North America.

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