In the days before monitors, if you wanted to get information from a computer, you had to rely on a printout of some sort. If you have been in this industry a while, you will probably remember the teletype terminals. If you are really old you might remember punch cards and paper tape.
Seen in this context, the advent of the monitor was one of the biggest revolutions in computing. In the 30 years since, the chosen method of information display has been the cathode ray tube (CRT). Tons of ugly greenbar and dozens of printers were replaced by clean, silent CRTs.
The next change was the liquid crystal display (LCD). Introduced with the first true laptop computers in the early 1990s, LCDs have moved to the desktop in the past decade. The advent of thin film transistor (TFT) technology made these screens almost as good as CRTs - but not quite.
At present, TFT monitors are approaching the level of CRTs on overall cost of ownership. TFTs last longer, use less electricity, put out less heat and take up less room than conventional displays. However, to get these benefits, you have to pay extra up front.
"We have got to a decision-making point for both consumer and corporate buyers," says Stuart Hudson, general manager, sales, at monitor manufacturer NEC/Mitsubishi. "TFT monitors got to a point last year where they were twice as expensive as CRT displays. At that ratio, the various things that make TFT monitors attractive kick in, and the extra expense at the point of sale can be justified."
Three things make flat-panel screens more desirable than CRTs: they consume less energy, last longer and have a smaller footprint. However, despite the assurances of TFT suppliers, it is still worth noting that CRTs offer higher resolution (for now), truer colour and lower price per square inch of display than flat panels. TFT technology should catch up quickly but, at present, the CRT is still the best choice in some instances.
The appearance last Christmas of LCD televisions was shadowed by an increase in flat-panel monitors being offered with computers by high street shops and manufacturers.
This happened for two reasons. Firstly, TFT production processes had been refined to the point that it was relatively easy for manufacturers to crank out lots of monitors. Secondly, manufacturers new to the TFT market wanted to gain a foothold, and squeezed their margins to the bone in search of market share.
According to a survey of high street pricing by market research company Meko, the average cost of a 15-inch LCD fell from just under £800 in the first quarter of 2000 to about £450 in the last quarter of 2001. Wander into a computer store today, and you will probably be able to pick up a display for even less.
"We are selling more LCDs that CRTs to retail and corporate buyers across the board," says Hudson. By Hudson's estimate, his company has about 34% of the 18-inch monitor market in the UK. "LCD business is, for us, about 60% or even 70 % of our revenue," he says.
But the CRT is not dead yet.
Chris Hounslow, sales manager at IT supplier Maxdata/Belinea, is adamant that his firm is not going to dump its CRT range. "For the next 18 months, the large CRT will stay, especially for high-end graphics such as computer aided design and prepress, but we are seeing a drive towards TFT from corporate desktop buyers," he says. "There has always been a magic number of £1,000 for a desktop computer, and it is now possible to include a TFT screen in that equation. The cost of a PC itself has dropped, as has the cost of a TFT display."
Another factor in the rise of flat-panel displays is the fact that they enable companies to cram more PC-using staff into a smaller space. Architect firm Pringle Brandon estimates that 22% more people can be fitted into a City dealing room if TFT displays are used instead of CRTs.
But while TFT monitors are more efficient, possibly superior ergonomically, and offer a host of long-term savings, CRTs are cheap and getting steadily cheaper - pricing in this market is a fairly cut-throat game for suppliers.
Furthermore, initial outlay buys you more screen "real estate" and better resolution - just two of the things that make CRTs attractive to some buyers.
A good example of this is Apple's decision last year to scrap CRT displays for its professional workstations. Buyers of new Power Mac G4 computers were offered a choice of 15-inch, 17-inch and 22-inch displays. The 22-inch display was a postbox profile plasma monitor with a digital adapter. It looked stunning, but it was not nearly as jaw-dropping as the price, which was several times that of some of the computers it was intended to work with.
On top of the enormous expense, TFT and Plasma displays lacked functions that professional users wanted, such as true colour calibration across a wide viewable range. Corporate buyers found that for the price of the smallest of the Apple monitors they could buy larger CRTs. Both LaCie and NEC/Mitsubishi saw business pick up as a result of Apple's decision.
"Apple opened the market for us," says George Leptos, UK general manager at LaCie. "For designers, the CRT still offers superior resolution. LaCie launched a TFT display six months ago, but the bulk of its display business still rests with a range of CRT monitors that feature hardware colour correction.
"Prices for large CRT monitors are coming down. This month we will probably drop prices by a seventh. You won't see that with TFTs."
If space constraints are not an issue, CRTs may still be the way to go.
However, Leptos also sees companies upgrading displays rather than entire computers. "I think people will upgrade from CRTs to TFTs in large numbers in 2002," he says. "People are realising that the Pentium III on their desk doesn't really need an upgrade, but maybe that tiny CRT they are using does."
In the meantime, other technologies are moving towards the PC, albeit via other markets. Plasma displays, the domain of the home entertainment buff and the TV studio, are becoming cheaper all the time. Plasma offers good resolution and viewing angles, but is still seen as something of a premium item.
Another technology already in place in the mobile phone and car stereo market is organic light emitting devices (Oleds) which promise to revolutionise all areas of the display market. Oleds will be cheap to produce in bulk, offer high viewing angles (at 160°, better than most, if not all, CRTs) and consume less energy than TFT displays. Their initial appearance in cell phone and car stereo displays is down to restrictions in the current manufacturing process and, in some cases, the poor longevity of the display itself.
"At the moment Oleds are short lived, lasting only a few thousand hours. It will take a while to get that life expectancy up and get Oleds into laptop computers," says Michael Holmes, chief executive of UK Oled manufacturer Opsys. The firm researches and develops Oled technology for the small to medium-sized displays used in the portable electronics industry.
Holmes expects Oleds to migrate to computer displays in 2005. He bases his reasoning on the history of the LCD market.
"In three or four years' time the LCD market will probably be worth about $70bn [£50bn]. It has taken 15 years for the LCD to get into computers. You have to remember, however, that it was not until 1990 that putting something as small and efficient as an LCD in a computer became important."
This neatly explains the state of the market. If, as one source in the display industry put it, the price of 15-inch TFT panels has bottomed out, it is not for want of trying to push the price down. At present, the long life, energy saving, ergonomic and space benefits of using TFT monitors make buying one for almost every employee a justifiable expense.