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TELEVISION PICTURES with the sharpness of films -- called high-definition TV -- are just around the corner, and American companies have recently made two important breakthroughs in the field. Don't bet, however, that this will give the United States leadership in the field over Japan.

Until now, Japanese and European companies appeared to have a commanding lead on so-called HDTV. But the two American breakthroughs may make their systems obsolete.

The Japanese and European systems can transmit programs only by satellite. The new American technology allows transmission over ordinary television frequencies -- a big advantage. The second technological breakthrough makes possible transmission in digital computer code. Eventually this could turn your TV set into a computer that stores programs for future use.

Past experience suggests, however, that Japanese companies will do all they can to turn the American inventions to their own advantage -- and that American companies may not rise cleverly enough to the challenge.

Nearly 25 years ago, the flat video screen was invented by an American scientist at RCA, George Heilmeier. RCA decided not to develop it commercially because it would threaten its existing products using the bulky cathode-ray tube.

The Japanese, to their credit, saw the potential of the invention, which can be used to make a TV screen as thin as a plate of glass. They invested billions of dollars in researching applications, and it is now beginning to pay off. In the 1990s, this technology will be used in video screens in television, business, hospitals and industry.

The Japanese companies have demonstrated that developing and marketing a product is just as important as the original invention, and they have spent years in improving products and learning how to make them in commercial quantities. Then, when products go on the market, American companies are intimidated by the large Japanese lead.

This is happening with the flat video screen. Many companies hesitate to invest millions in the project because of Japanese competition and the uncertainties surrounding the product. Some American companies are throwing their hats in the ring, however, including giant International Business Machines, which is entering a joint venture with Toshiba, a Japanese competitor.

Some view Japanese industry as an invincible, monolithic machine backed by its government, but Japanese firms compete fiercely with one another, as well as with foreign companies. And in the case of the flat screen, Japanese industry has received very little help from governmental research.

American industry must not throw up its hands in the face of foreign competition. It has the ability to probe new technologies, and it must also have the persistence and patience to follow through instead of leaving the development to others.

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