Coming Soon?

It's already a month into 2008, but never too late to make predictions for the coming year or so—predictions of things that probably won't happen in the way we expect. If anything is certain, it's the uncertainty of the future. The volatile world of consumer electronics is no exception.

The Digital Transition Before the 2008 elections candidates will avoid discussing the coming 2009 analog over-the-air TV shutdown like the plague.

The government will issue $40 discount coupons to everyone for analog converter boxes, even to consumers who get their programming from cable and satellite and don't need them. Following distribution of the coupons, the price of the converter boxes will increase from $60 to $100.

After the transition, television news outlets will run feature stories on how to hook up your digital converter box. Those who need the help won’t be able to receive the broadcasts.

Music on Blu-ray A small, innovative music company will decide to release a few multichannel music-only titles on Blu-ray in either 24-bit/96kHz PCM or Dolby TrueHD.

Audiophiles will immediately insist on reissue of the recordings with 2-channel tracks.

Digital Amplifiers The weight savings possible with class D amplifiers will prove irresistible to receiver manufacturers, who have largely avoided them so far because they require a major redesign of their circuitry. (And you thought that they redesigned their amplifier stages with every yearly model change!) At the high end they will add thicker, heavier sheet metal to retain perceived value with customers who equate lightweight with cheap.

Rear Projection Rear projection sets will still be available from one or two manufacturers, but they will not promote them much beyond mid-year. The only exception may be laser projection, currently being pursued among major manufacturers only by Mitsubishi, which began researching laser technology long before flat panels caught fire (metaphorically speaking). Whether or not lasers become viable for consumer displays remains an open question. Another SED story-in-the-making, perhaps?

Front Projection The possible demise of RPTVs could generate a few ripples in the front projector market, since the slowing demand for imaging chips might impact their cost and production. I would not expect any major changes, but manufacturers might be a little less inclined to major price reductions.

On the other hand, lower projector prices might lead to increased demand. When consumers become aware that they can get a decent projector and screen for not much more than the price of a good flat panel, and a much larger image in the bargain, a significant number might be tempted to join the big-screen brigade.

For that to happen, however, retailers will have to improve the state of in-store projector demonstrations, which is currently abysmal. I’ve seen great projectors set up so poorly that I wouldn’t watch a movie on them that way if you paid me. Well maybe I could grit my teeth for two hours for a $500 gift certificate.

Flat Panels The prices will continue to drop, though at a slower rate than over the past couple of years. There must be a floor on them somewhere, so savings to the consumer will increasingly come in the form of a bigger set for the same price.

LCD sales will continue to dominate, but plasma will retain a small but loyal following. If this year’s CES was any indication, look for thinner sets in both flavors to start appearing this fall. The question is, where are they going to hide the drive electronics in that inch-thick chassis?

Don’t look for breakthroughs in new technology. OLED appears to be the next up-and-comer, and offers huge advantages in thinness, potential picture quality (great black levels) and energy savings. But it’s more than a year off—if ever—in sizes and prices that could allow it to take off as a consumer product.

Watch for ominous grumbling about the energy consumption of LCD and, in particular, plasma designs from the same group that has decided to kill off the incandescent light bulb. New mileage—er—energy efficiency standards might sound great, but they could seriously degrade picture quality before technology catches up again.

The Format War The song is over, but the melody lingers on. Toshiba’s recent decision to spend several million dollars advertising on the Super Bowl may indicate an admirable feistiness, but also a disregard for the consumer. It can only prolong the death throes of HD DVD, which will continue to keep many average consumers confused and on the sidelines.

Blu-ray is spending its advertising dollars wisely, concentrating on cable channels which cater to more likely buyers. I find it amusing that Universal, which still supports HD DVD, is carrying advertising for Blu-ray on Universal HD.

The jury is out on how these changes will affect the prices of Blu-ray hardware and software. The biggest upside move Blu-ray can make, in my opinion, will be to lower the retail process of BDs by at least $5. They are still too high to generate a wider market appeal—particularly since their biggest competition will soon come from standard definition DVDs of the same films and TV series selling for far less.