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On December 4, chip giant Qualcomm announced that displays using the technology developed by its subsidiary Pixtronix would be manufactured by Sharp, the technically accomplished but financially stressed Japanese display and TV maker.

Pixtronix and Sharp, which have had a technology-development agreement for the last year and a half, will now collaborate on accelerating the commercialization of Pixtronix’ field-sequential-color (FSC), MEMS display technology, and combine it with the IGZO backplane technology developed by Sharp. As part of the agreement, reported Japan’s The Nikkei, Qualcomm will make an equity investment of ¥5 billion (US $61 million) in Sharp by the end of this year through a private placement of new shares. Qualcomm will add an additional ¥5 billion when sufficient progress has been made. The ¥10 billion investment, if completed, would give Qualcomm a 5% stake in Sharp based on Sharp’s current share price, The Nikkei added. Qualcomm’s minority purchase would be in addition to, not instead of, possible agreements now under discussion with Hon Hai, Dell, and Intel.

In a statement quoted by Peter Clarke in EE Times, Sharp said the investment from Qualcomm, would be devoted for development and capital costs to commercialize the MEMs display and manufacture it at Sharps LCD plant in Yonago, Tittori prefecture. Sharp purchased the Yonago facility from Fujitsu in 2005 when Fujitsu exited the display fabrication business. At the time, the Yonago plant contained one Gen 2.5 line and one Gen 4 line.

Taiwan’s United Evening News reported that Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou said his company’s negotiation to acquire up to a 9.9% stake in Sharp will not be affected by the Qualcomm deal. Gou said he still expects to reach a decision with Sharp before March 2013. A Hon Hai executive contacted by Reuters said Hon Hai and Sharp have not yet agreed on a price.

Target applications for the MEMS / IGZO display include smart phones and tablets, said Qualcomm executive VP and group president Derek Aberle. Yoshisuke Hasegawa, executive managing officer of Sharp Corporation, said “Sharp is targeting to accelerate the commercialization of MEMS displays by combining Sharp’s cutting-edge IGZO technology and Pixtronix’s MEMS display technology.” Both technologies can lower power consumption and lengthen battery life, so combining them could produce a display with LCD-like image quality and significantly higher luminous efficiency.

Qualcomm acquired Pixtronix, Inc., located in Andover, Mass., early this year for an amount reported to be between $175 million and $200 million. Since Qualcomm had another MEMS-based display technology under development – the mirasol display, into which it had invested significant money and energy over several years – there was substantial speculation at the time concerning how Qualcomm would would coordinate the two technologies. That Qualcomm would essentially walk away from mirasol by the end of the year and elevate the Pixtronix technology to flagship position was not seriously considered by most analysts, although mirasol’s very long gestation period raised doubts about its long-term potential. Those doubts were heightened by the technology’s disappointing performance in the Korean-market-only Kyobo eReader. Still, mirasol’s extremely rapid fall from grace and Pixtronix’ equally rapid rise were not generally anticipated.

Without going into the technical details of the Pixtronix technology, it could develop into a worthy competitor for LCD in some applications, and could perhaps enable hybrid products that would occupy the territory between black-and-white E Ink eReaders and heavier and more power-hungry conventional tablets. But Pixtronix and Sharp should work quickly. E Ink is working on a full-color reflective technology that could tilt the playing field in yet another direction.

Ken Werner is Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, specializing in the display industry, display manufacturing, display technology, and display applications. You can reach him at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.

Posted by Pete Putman, December 7, 2012 10:40 AM

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About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.