The New York Times is reporting that Vizio is getting out of the plasma TV business and focusing solely on LCD. That leaves only Samsung, LG, and Panasonic as plasma TV brands in the U.S., and both Samsung and LG have been shifting more of their lines to LCD. Vizio's rationale is clear: consumers prefer LCD. Why do consumers prefer LCD? Because it's the brighter technology on the showroom floor. Of course, the showroom floor is hardly representative of a consumer's home, and every expert agrees that plasma TVs offer better picture quality than LCD. I've yet to find any disagreement on this issue, even from manufacturers of LCD sets: plasma TVs have richer colors and better black levels, both of which factor into a better picture. LCD is brighter, which makes it... brighter.
So what's going on here? The showroom is different from the living room:
- In a store, there are lots of TVs vying for attention. In the home, there's usually just one in any room. When consumers look at 12 big screen TVs next to each other, the brightest picture draws the eye. Manufacturers have known this forever - they used to ship all their tube TVs set to insanely bright levels that were completely innappropriate for actual use just so that when a retailer unboxed one to put it on display, that set would "pop."
- In a store, the lighting is usually garish flourescent. In a home, the lighting is usually softer. Brighter TVs do perform better than plasma under harsh lighting conditions. Therefore, if you're putting a TV right next to a sunny window without blinds or curtains, an LCD is a better choice than a plasma. (An even better choice would be to buy a window shade.)
- Another factor in LCD's rise over plasma was that LCD sets had a short-lived resolution advantage over plasma about three years ago. The sales help at retail often is not capable of properly assessing a customers needs and matching it with a specific product (if they were, they'd be in product development or marketing, not retail). Given the tortured technical jargon vendors use to promote consumer electronics, consumers (and confused retail personnel) are easily enticed by bigger numbers in the specs. 1080p is a much bigger number than 720p, and bigger is better, right? This phenomenon also explains the abundance of 10 and 12 megapixel cameras when, if all else is equal, a 6 megapixel camera actually takes better pictures.
So, are consumers idiots? They're pushing a terrific, less expensive technology off the market in favor of one that's not bad, but costs more and isn't as good. Another way to look at it is that consumers aren't idiots at all - they're accurately evaluating the product in its retail environment. Either way, Vizio is smart. It's building what sells. Now, you would think that this is a pretty basic insight: consumers buy at retail, the retail environment favors technology A over B, therefore, to succeed, focus on technology A. It is basic, but apparently, it's not obvious. I can't tell you how many times I talk to my clients in the mobile device world who simply choose to ignore the retail distribution reality, and suffer becasue of it.