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Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi demonstrate their new low-power LCD displays

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November 8, 2012

Japanese electronics device makers Sony, Toshiba and Hitachi have been demonstrating their low-power LCD display technology with a backlight instead of relying on reflected light. The trio formed their new joint venture, Japan Display, earlier this year and appear to have been pretty busy since, demonstrating several designs at last week’s Flat Panel Display International conference in Yokohama.

Dispensing with the backlight means that the display draws about just 3 milliwatts of power when displaying static images. It's able to do this by reflecting external light off the panel to render a monochrome image which is then filtered through a Light Control Layer featuring color filters.

In a similar fashion to e-ink, each pixel on the display is capable to retain its color without requiring any more power.

"This display is a reflective type, but as it uses liquid crystal, and it has electric circuits built in,” a Japan Display spokesman said.

“The circuits can retain signals. This feature is called Memory in Pixels. With a still picture, once the data has been written, it can be retained, so power consumption is extremely low," he added.

There are two versions of the technology. The first has a reflection rate of 40 percent but only five percent of the NTSC color gamut is represented, while the second has a better color gamut – 36 percent – however, with a reflection rate of only 28 percent, it makes the picture look dimmer.

The first technology is said to be ready for mass production today and is likely to be seen in e-readers in the short term, until Japan Display can turn up the color and improve the 30:1 contrast ratio that will make it suitable for other applications such as smartphones and tablets.

In other mobile news

AT&T this morning announced a new plan to cover a bit more than 95 percent of the United States' overall population with 4G-LTE service by the end of 2014.

Now this may sound like some fairly good news for most customers but it also reveals that AT&T may have told regulators a very convenient white lie last year while the wireless carrier was fighting for its now failed T-Mobile USA merger from its parent company Deutsche Telekom.

One of the proposed deal's fiercest battle points was 4G access outside major U.S. cities. Without T-Mobile, AT&T told the FCC and Congress that it was very unlikely that it would expand 4G-LTE service beyond the 80 percent coverage threshold it already planned to reach by early next year.

"In some of these less-populous municipalities and in most rural regions, AT&T simply lacks the wireless spectrum necessary to deploy 4G and LTE-- it's as simple as that," the company told the Federal Communications Commission in a written defense argument of its proposal.

At the time, the FCC called AT&T's statement a real bluff. It released a damning report on the scuttled merger with T-Mobile saying it believed AT&T would expand its 4G deployment with or without T-Mobile.

In December 2011, AT&T then became very angry, complaining that the FCC's analysis directly contradicted AT&T's "documents and sworn declarations." AT&T got particularly irritated about the FCC's prediction -- "based purely on outright speculation" -- that the wireless carrier, eventually would expand its LTE deployment to 97 percent or more of the population even if it didn't acquire T-Mobile.

Fast-forward all of this to today. AT&T is now saying that its $14 billion network investment will allow its 4G service to cover 300 million Americans, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population.

"They painted the stakes as dire as possible when they were trying to acquire T-Mobile, but the fact is that AT&T had to match its rivals in 4G and LTE market roll-outs," said Ken Rehben, an analyst at Yankee Group.

And former AT&T executive Josh King is even more critical of his previous employer. "That poor-mouth 80 percent statement was about as credible as AT&T's claim that the merger would create 96,000 jobs," said King, who left AT&T Mobility in 2005 and now heads business development at Avvo, a legal and medical directory site.

To this day, AT&T still insists that it wasn't being disingenuous with the regulators and the FCC. Things changed, the company says, pointing to the forty or more new spectrum deals it signed over the past year.

The FCC recently made available some wireless spectrum that wasn't on the table when AT&T was negotiating its T-Mobile takeover.

"We chartered a new path," said AT&T spokeswoman Roberta Thomson earlier this morning in response to this story.

And that's precisely what the FCC and many wireless industry analysts believed last year would happen and it did. "A decision not to say 'yes' at a particular moment is not the same as saying 'no' forever," the FCC said in its report in November 2011.

"The record does not support AT&T's claim that future consideration of an expanded LTE deployment was a slim possibility." Didn't AT&T know all along that it would have to beef up its network?

"I am choosing my words very carefully here," said Charles Golvin, an industry analyst with Forrester Research. "The simple answer is yes, I believe that AT&T's strategy has always been to expand LTE coverage to as much of the market as possible."

Nevertheless, for political reasons or otherwise, the FCC held off on taking a victory lap on its own. Instead, it released a statement this morning praising AT&T's expansion plans, calling them "proof positive that the climate for investment and innovation in the U.S. communications sector is healthy."

In other mobile news

Mobile payments solutions provider Inside Secure has announced the NFC SIM technology it already demonstrated a year ago, potentially adding a ticketing service to any mobile phone, but without the other neat applications NFC can do on a typical smartphone. The new technology uses an RF (radio frequency) booster, branded The PicoPulse, which uses mobile handset power to push the Near Field Communications radio signal through the battery which normally sits atop the SIM, but it does allow even the lowest-cost mobile phone to take part in the pay-by-tap evolution, assuming wireless network operators agree it's worth the expense.

Near Field Communications comprises three components, only two of which Inside Secure has managed to get working in a standard-sized SIM. The secure element, where tickets and actual currency are stored, and the radio antenna.

However, there's no space for an induction loop which would draw power from the reader if the handset battery were dead, and that's an issue that Inside Secure needs to fix if it wants to be successful with this.

This can be used to induce power in passive cards by most NFC handsets. Still, there just isn't room on the SIM for that kind of technology, though the applications for it are still very limited at this point in time.

Overall, mobile handsets with proper induction coils can read smart posters, inducing current in a tag stuck to a poster in order to read a URL, but the business model for such tags is thoroughly vague and Inside Secure is betting that network operators simply won't care.

The usual way to get around that issue is to use an antenna built into the handset, wired to the SIM (which remains the home of the secure element) using the Single Wire Protocol.

Almost all the NFC handsets on the market today support the SWP, though some also have their own secure element as well. But there are some alternatives, including special batteries and antennas which wrap around the battery, generally connected to the SIM, though Smart Sim makes one which passively echoes the signal around the battery.

Overall, SIMs have become a very commodity item, and Inside Secure obviously wants to sell functionality, but network operators in the U.S. are traditionally reluctant to put things in the SIM given the volumes involved.

When it comes to an NFC SIM, Inside Secure is racing against smartphone makers who are already embedding NFC antennas and rendering its new technology obsolete-- with the only notable exception being Apple.

And Apple's use of nano SIMs precludes even Inside's diminutive technology. Apple aside, NFC is now a standard feature of most new smartphones. If pay-by-tap achieves any success then, it will soon be a standard on all feature phones, leaving Inside Secure with a narrow window of opportunity.

In other mobile news

Verizon Wireless’ experiment at cashing in on its mobile app store appears set to come to an end as the operator said it plans to shut down the service by the end of March 2013. The wireless carrier noted that most of the applications available through its branded offerings are already available through competing storefronts for the Android and BlackBerry operating system that its Verizon Apps offering targeted.

Verizon Wireless said it will start removing the application from Android and BlackBerry devices beginning in January. That could be good news for some device owners that have voiced opposition to wireless carriers increasingly placing native applications on smartphones that users are unable to remove.

For those application developers that actually provided apps for the store, Verizon Wireless said it will continue making payments until the offering is shut down.

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“There’s now a whole new tech landscape in which both consumers and developers can interact like never before,” Verizon Wireless noted.

“We’re evolving our strategy to further simplify today’s experience and meet the needs of tomorrow,” the company added.

Verizon Wireless initially launched its application store in early 2010, looking to gain a foothold into the then rapidly growing segment.

The app offering eventually targeted devices running Google’s Android and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry operating systems, though both had already begun offering applications across their own branded application stores.

Industry observers have been noting for some time that application stores outside of traditional operating systems would have little chance for survival. And in a nutshell, that's pretty much what happened.

In other mobile news

New research from Juniper Research reveals that with brands and retailers increasingly hopeful to deploy augmented reality (AR) capabilities within their mobile apps and marketing materials, AR applications should generate over $300 million in revenues globally next year.

The report also found that while the traditional pay-per-download model would continue to account for the largest share of revenues in the medium term, the scale of retailer engagement with AR suggested that adspend had upscaled dramatically in 2012 and was poised for further strong growth in 2013.

Juniper also discovered that many retailers now perceived AR as a key method of increasing engagement with consumers, both as a means of providing additional product information or in the form of branded virtual games and activities.

But the report also cautioned that while the lack of consumer awareness of AR remained a key hurdle which needed to be overcomed, it was by no means the only barrier to growth.

It argued that technological limitations of AR-enablers such as the phone camera, GPS, digital compasses and markerless tracking meant that in many cases, the AR experience was failing to live up to consumer expectations.

The Juniper report claims that even some higher-end smartphone cameras lacked sufficient sensitivity to trigger an AR experience unless light conditions were absolutely optimal.

Furthermore, the need to recalibrate digital compasses allied to poor in-building functionality of GPS means that under certain circumstances the level of location accuracy would not be sufficient for many potential corporate applications.

As a result, the report stated that enterprise adoption would be limited in the medium term. Other key findings from the report include: more than 2.5 billion AR apps can be downloaded to smartphones and tablets per annum by 2017, with games accounting for the largest share of downloads.

AR is increasingly being deployed in prototype wearable devices, with Google Glass the most high-profile innovation.

The Augmented Reality whitepaper is available to download from the Juniper website together with further details of the full study, ‘Mobile Augmented Reality: Entertainment, LBS & Retail Strategies 2012-2017'.

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