It seems that the press and Panasonic are at odds lately; there are conflicting statements from two VPs, on the topic of the company exiting the plasma HDTV market. Other rumors came directly from Japan, claiming that "Panasonic will shut down production at its main Amagasaki plant, reducing production gradually to avoid angering partners and retailers," which added fuel to the fire. The result was a series of articles, from different news outlets, claiming the end is here for the Viera plasma, as well as articles refuting the contention.
Plasma is already the smallest market segment among flat-panels - photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
Panasonic is in a bind—the future of flat panels is OLED and the present is dominated by LED-lit LCD panels—while the company finds itself with the broadest line of plasma panels of any HDTV manufacturer. How does one make sense of the recent statements about plasmas future? Considering plasma shipments dropped 23% in 2012 while LED/LCD shipments remained flat, the answer probably has something to do with how to exit the market segment as gracefully as possible.
The Verge was the first to report on the end of the development of any new plasma panels, which is the source of the latest hullabaloo. Panasonic pitched its new "Studio Master Panel" as the latest in HDTV image quality, finally beating the legendary Pioneer Kuro – a claim that has yet to be properly tested. It is a very particular distinction—a new panel is not something that comes along all the time, so ending new panel research does not mean the end of making the technology perform better—the company likely wants to see some benefit from its investment.
Panasonic Display Vice President Kyoshi Okamata told The Verge that some plasma engineers have already been transferred to OLED research, engineers that will work on new panel technologies. Mr. Okamata explicitly said that the new ZT60 uses the "last plasma panel" that Panasonic will develop. Evidently there is room to improve the new panel, and for the technology to be used in less expensive models—at some point in the future. So, what is the roadmap?
Panasonic sent out a press release shortly after The Verge article's publication, as reported by Engadget.com—Henry Hauser, the Vice President, Merchandising Group of the Panasonic Consumer Marketing Company of North America said:
"This week in New York City, Panasonic demonstrated the latest development of our gapless Plasma panel technology in our 2013 Smart VIERA ZT Series Plasma HDTV. The technology incorporated into our ZT Series Studio Master Panel will be the basis for continued plasma display panel development and production. While the Smart VIERA ZT Series introduces a new level of Plasma picture quality, we believe there is still room for further improvement and intend to continue to research ways to take our Plasma technology to even higher levels where it also has the potential to be applied in our other Plasma series in the future.
"VIERA Plasma HDTVs continue to set the standard for picture quality and black level excellence and the ZT Series is another example of the continued ability of Plasma to evolve and continue to deliver a best-in-class HDTV."
Two vice presidents, two different spins on the same situation. How to read between the lines?
There is one inescapable reality of plasma—no company is spending money on a 4K version of the technology. Panasonic is all-in for an OLED-based future. Engineering talent and funding has already moved from development of the Studio Master Panel to OLED research, at least according to Mr. Okamata, as quoted in The Verge article:
How long can plasma last in this environment? For a good hint, one can look at the fate of 720p plasma panels – Samsung and Panasonic still sell them and they represent the most square inches of flat-screen real estate one can buy for the money. Wal-mart and Best Buy both sell 720p units, and like their more expensive home-theater brethren, the 720p units are better than ever, with reduce power draw and better-than-ever resistance to image retention. Availability and price are not the issues holding back 720p plasma, it's just that consumers want 1080p. Going forward, without a leap to 4K resolution, plasma is doomed to obsolescence.
Examining Mr. Hauser's statement, what I glean is that Panasonic plans to use the new panel on other lines, perhaps after one-year as an exclusive feature on the ZT60. The other implication—I am really am reading between the lines here—is that there will be at least one more iteration of the ZT, with engineering tweaks that bring performance even closer to the reference ideal. The biggest issue remains the 23% drop in plasma sales last year, which is a serious collapse of demand in an already small market segment. There is no way that Panasonic can continue to introduce new plasma televisions, if the market for the technology simply does not exist.