Qualcomm Fires a Bullet with Butterfly Wings

If you thought the LCD screen was here to stay, I'm afraid you were mistaken. Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) is investing $2 billion into the next generation of visual beauty.

No, Qualcomm isn't getting into the OLED technologies espoused by Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL  ) , Sumitomo Chemical, and others. Instead, the chip designer is cranking up the volume on a completely different investment it made back in 2004. The $170 million acquisition of display-tech researcher Iridigm has already resulted in a billion-dollar joint venture with gadget builder Foxlink, and now the company takes the next step with an even larger manufacturing plan all of its own.

Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) may have given up on its Field Emission Display technology, and Canon (NYSE: CAJ  ) may have pulled the plug on SED displays. But there's still no shortage of exciting technologies gearing up to replace boring old LCD and plasma screens.

The Mirasol display technology in play here comes from duplicating the way a butterfly's wings or peacock feathers reflect light in cascades of iridescent coruscation. It's a fundamentally different technique compared to all the other next-generation hopefuls out there:

  • Even the finest LCD screens simply filter or block the photons from a backlight.
  • OLED elements emit their own light in a very efficient manner, which makes the technology look awesome in low-light situations, but a bit worse in direct sunlight.
  • Mirasol reflects light instead. It's ideal for direct sunlight.

Furthermore, once you change the state of a Mirasol pixel, it stays that way until you change it again. Without backlights or self-powered light to worry about, the display uses next to no power at all until the image changes.

Mirasol displays are already available at retail, though only from no-name gadget designers you haven't heard of. LG has made noise about starting the consumer-friendly commercial wave with handsets and possible tablet computers in full color, running on the Mirasol output from the Foxlink venture. Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs has pointed to an annual $11 billion market for these low-power displays, including daylight-saturated places like stadium jumbotron displays. You won't see OLED screens in those anytime soon -- but then, you'll never see Mirasol lamps, either. These markets don't overlap completely.

It'll still be a while before we see mass-market volumes of Mirasol screens, but Qualcomm is putting so much skin in the game that you have to believe that it's coming. If that $11 billion market materializes, Qualcomm will look like a genius for owning the entire platform when the likes of Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , HTC, Samsung, and Apple and the rest of the smartphone industry line up for a share of Qualcomm's limited production output.

Does Qualcomm have a winner on its hands, or is the company just wasting money chasing butterflies? Discuss in the comments below. 

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. He rejoices in the opportunity to write about "cascades of iridescent coruscation." Universal Display is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. The Fool owns shares of Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2010, at 10:46 AM, Kenbenken wrote:

    Given it's viewability in sunllight Mirasol needs to be put in gasoline pumps so people can read the pump information. KBK

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