It's about flat; it's not about sharp

I have just seen the future, and it is flat. The legions of the Society of Information Display have descended on Boston in their power suits and their team-colors polo shirts. They're ready to pitch their wares and check out the competition and seek out new partners.

Their wares are mostly video screens – as big as billboards, or as small as an inch or two across. The common element is flatness: The bulky cathode-ray tube (CRT) is yielding to the flat panels familiar in notebook computers, and now making inroads in television.

Ifire Technology of Toronto, for instance, wants to use its inorganic electroluminescence (IEL) technology in 28- to 40-inch television sets. CRT sets, bulky but relatively cheap, now have 99.9 percent of this market, says Don Carkner of Ifire. But he and his team figure that a flat-panel TV at "only" twice the price of a comparable CRT model could win 20 percent of the market – the ones willing to pay extra to hang their set on the wall.

Interestingly, Ifire is not focused on high-definition television (HDTV), the "new thing" that has hovered just over the horizon for years now. The hovering has to do with how people actually use technology, rather than what technology can do. Most people just don't demand high definition for watching sitcoms. Ifire's assumption is that in the medium term, those ready to spend serious money on a TV will opt for the space-saving convenience of a flat panel over the technological edge of HDTV.

Now I don't want to leave a misimpression: Ifire's screens showed excellent image quality. But asked whether Ifire is about "flat," as in low bulk, or about "sharp," as in high definition, Mr. Carkner says, "We think it's mainly about 'flat.' "

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