Big Displays in Little Gadgets

There are times when a cell-phone screen just isn't big enough. Even a beefy Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPhone display is too small for sharing videos with more than a couple of your closest friends, and you can forget about impromptu business presentations. Rule Breakers inductee Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL  ) is working on bigger roll-up screens, but even that solution has its limits.

That's why Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) has high hopes for the DLP Pico technology that it just showed off at the Mobile World Congress '08 trade show. It's a chipset and optics package small enough to fit in mobile devices, yet it projects big-screen images on walls or projection screens with the same technology that drives 57-inch DLP television sets from Panasonic (NYSE: MC  ) and Samsung.

A further shrinkage of the display engines you see in TI has shown us this technology before through Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) prototypes, but the chips have advanced to full-fledged production now. It remains to be seen whether Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) or Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) jump on this new capability, because serious projection can drain a cell-phone battery very quickly, even with hyper-efficient LED lights behind the minuscule lens.

So even though DLP Pico is available today, it remains a sort of future technology that is waiting for fatter batteries and super-efficient lights to catch up with the chip. TI hasn't told us what the chips will cost, though large-scale DLP drivers were estimated at about $190 a pop two years ago. If the new, tiny product lives in that pricing neighborhood, that's going to mean very expensive projector phones. The company quoted independent research that supports a market of about 1 million tiny projectors like this by 2010, be they TI's or someone else's. Let's be extremely charitable and give TI a 100% market share; with 1 million units times a generous $200 price point, you still end up with a very small impact on TI's $13.8 billion annual sales.

Solve the technical limitations, and it's whole new ball game. For now, it's an oddity that should interest only the true-blue, long-term investors among us. Well, and the compulsive video-sharing freaks. But that's another story.

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