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12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012

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Reinvent the display–again

By Mary Lou Jepsen, Founder and CEO, Pixel Qi (as told to Barb Darrow)

Mary Lou Jepsen could be called the queen of screens. Her pioneering work on computer displays took her from graduate studies in holography at MIT and optical science at Brown to MicroDisplay to Intel to One Laptop Per Child. Today, she is the founder and CEO of PixelQI, where she works on creating energy-stingy, bright, and lightweight screens for laptops and smaller devices, including phones. In her view, the screens are not an after thought, they are key to the user experience.

The LCD industry is in meltdown. The losses are huge and have been for the last five years or so. It’s unclear how some of the large companies are going to make it through.

The recession’s different in the hardware industry. I think it’s much worse today than in 2008 and early 2009. For the tier one companies, it’s not about the hardware anymore. It’s about hardware, software, content. And content suppliers are king right now. A lot of the hardware suppliers won’t survive unless they restructure. It’s a bit like the airline industry. Many of the airlines we fly are bankrupt. We’re dealing with that kind of scenario. They all make the same products and compete on price. You can only do that for a number of years before the consequences get worse and worse. E-ink stands alone, as a category that is doing relatively well.

In 2011, it became apparent to the executives that they need to do something different. That made our life easier at PixelQI. Now we can get into the factories. Before it was a struggle, with us trying to say, “We know more about designing an LCD than you do.” They’d look at us and say, “How many people are you? We’ve got 50,000 people. Where’s your fab? How many engineers do you have?” For me to say, “Well, my engineers have Ph.D.s from MIT and Stanford” — they don’t care about that.

Over the course of our company’s life, we’ve shipped three million units, including the One Laptop Per Child units. No one’s ever done that before for a novel display company. It usually takes decades. We’ve shown our stuff can be mass-produced in volume and deal with the price structure inside existing factories.

We may move into the cell phone space next year, but for that we need to demonstrate volume in multiple fabs, because the volume in cell phones is so large.

We have a cross licensing deals with One Laptop Per Child. Thanks to OLPC, every child in Uruguay has a laptop. Half of the children in Peru. Huge deployments in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Forty-eight countries, 20 different languages. I think there are a few million OLPC laptops in the field. OLPC started the low-cost laptop category. Intel has several million out, too. There are $100 netbooks now that also address this market.

But the OLPC laptop is by far the lowest powered, like 10 times lower power. That really matters in the developing world, where there is no steady access, or sometimes any access, to power.

I spent more time with Nicholas [Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab founder who later founded OLPC] than my husband for a couple of years. It was an incredible mentorship, getting to see the way he approached problems and made decisions. Often when I’m stuck, I think, “What would Nicholas do?” I don’t always do it, but it gives me a different perspective on how to open up the problem.

One challenge for next year is whether the industry, our customers, find an interesting tablet that isn’t just like the iPad but cheaper. Certainly Amazon is making a go of it. The competitive landscape has been tough on our big customers, the ones in Best Buy who compete with Apple. There are a lot of products that haven’t made it.

We’re also working on some displays that will be rollable, flexible, put anywhere displays, and look better than OLED and don’t need power cables or data cables. That’s pretty cool, because then you can solve some problems in portable computing. With rollable displays you can look at more data. You can write notes in one area and view things in other areas. Digital signage needs it. TV needs it.

LCD is a bit like low-end DRAM these days and it doesn’t have to be. There’s so much more we can do to use it like we use DCMOS. With what we’re doing, we’ll show you that you don’t need batteries. Or it might be more like a watch where you might change a small battery.

I’ve also been thinking about the way we perceive images. When you see something really striking, it feels like it’s burnt on your retina. There’s some data that suggests that it kind of is. Not the retina exactly, but right behind it, on the LGN [lateral geniculate nucleus]. There’s research that shows that it’s possible to extract that information, suck it out. Two thirds of our brainpower is allocated to processing visual images. What are they? Do they look like what we think they are? Can we get those out to people? How will communication change? Will it be better, worse? Will it shock people? In the ultimate future of display technology, there is no display. We will communicate with images that are in our minds already.

42 Responses to “12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012”

  1. Daniel Mbure

    I like the human face to technology bit and the acceptance that technology can become overwhelming. I think more tech entrepreneurs should help users deal with the deluge of information rather than adding even more information to an already overflowing knowledge stream. As someone once said, and the big data debate supports this, the future belongs to the information curators, not the information creators.

    • alex vernon

      I actually like that as an entrepreneur, he brought up physical activity. I find that its critical to get a good oxygen rush in at least a couple times a week as well.

  2. This gave me some ideas. Now, I’m having trouble with my resolution: Be a better manager or be a better leader? I think there’s a difference between the two. I would love to see technology humanized this year and we have a lot to clean up amidst all that clutter. More success to all this 2012!

  3. panjwani_ajay

    dans story reminds me of the problem of electricity grids where half the power gets wasted in transmission. in telecom too, there is no need for owners of networks to provide services too. have number portability and have a separation between network ownership and service providers

  4. panjwani_ajay

    pixel qi is following apple model – designed in us made in china. that indicates the onset of higher optimizations for higher margins. and that is where the conspiracy lies. those mit stanford phds were always at hand watching china under optimize all over the place. only when the margins got wafer thin did these phds decide to add intellectual property margins

  5. Carol Wyatt

    GREAT!!! I agree with you about women being more hesitant. I also want women to push for society to accept us as Mom’s and Dad’s with lives. The American workplace is not child friendly and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our family’s quality of life for careers, or vice versa. At least this is the case in the entertainment industry. I hope we can stop working crazy hours and spend some time with our families and friends.

  6. Peter Mullen

    Nice post Mr. Hesse and I’ve been a loyal Sprint customer since the year 2000 but you guys still screw your existing customers under contract and always favor new customers when new handsets come out (which is pretty rare). But, you guys still are the best of the big 3 in the US.

  7. If you look at the world through a pair of eyes then naturally we surmise that there might be more considering the lack of use of the most part of our brain…then stating that we might neurologically partake of data and images in the future is plainly stating the bleedin obvious.

    I see that we strive forward as a collective group of engineers trying to convince the world that 3D is the next step…when it may damage eyes to the point that we had better, and pretty soon find the answer to the absorbtion of images neurologically because we may be on route blinding a generation….The folly of the human being and the “no sir nicotine is not harmful” attitude of businessmen is a frightening legacy!

  8. panjwani_ajay

    we are facing tech evolution so fast that we are increasingly lagging behind. in such a situation, the best thing we can do and should do is work from first principles. in an ideal business setup, there is no profit or loss. also we need to separate the goals from the paths. these three form the basis of all my thinking about how technology can improve our lives FP / IB / GP

  9. panjwani_ajay

    it does not matter if the net is open or closed, what matters is the extent of run time criteria vs compile time criteria. we live in a world of power gradients, which are maintained indicating the absense of a countervailing force. this is possible if resistance buildup is nipped in the bud, which requires run time criteria.

  10. “A few years ago, Google started favoring some of their own websites over others. They left a path of scorched earth through many prominent businesses and publishers.”

    It’s fairly irresponsible to say this without justifying it. Which Google services are you referring to, and which businesses were hurt by it? There are many individual cases you could be referring to, with varying degrees of debatability.

  11. Wilson Zorn

    GREAT article. But linking from the “12 tech leaders’ resolutions” was both inaccurate (given there are no “resolutions” here) and unnecessary (as I was enticed to come to the article via an NRF newsletter linking this and that newsletter gave a quote from this particular article – I have no interest in reading tech leaders’ resolutions).

    Further it was difficult to get to this page from the page introducing the 12 leaders’ resolutions, as the text on the photos was in many cases unreadable, especially for this Mullenweg article. I got to this as I could make out the “Open” word and guessed this was Mullenweg’s likeness.

    Second attempt at commenting – seriously, my comment doesn’t appear and no notification like “pending approval of the comment” because I chose “guest” instead of one of the commercial services? Fine, I logged in via Twitter this time. But this really needs to fix its messaging and/or technical issues (I’m not sure which it is). Apologies if this resulted in a double post.

  12. A GREAT article but please note that grouping it under “leaders’ New Year’s resolutions” was wholly unnecessary and misleading (given there were no resolutions, and anyway I did not go to this article because of “resolutions” but rather because I saw a quote from the article in an NRF newsletter regarding the increasingly closed nature of the web). And it wasn’t easy to get here from the page that showed the photos because the text was poorly printed in contrast so that many of the names I couldn’t read, I happened to guess correctly at Matt Mullenweg’s likeness.

  13. Philip has a lot to say , but there is a silicon valley assumption hidden here that no company is valid unless it has VC investment and makes a quick exit. Anything else is derided as a “lifestyle business.” When you take VC or angel money you instantly change who your customer is. No longer are you solving a problem for a million people, you are now solving an investment criteria for a very few investors. Don’t do it. Find a small enough piece of the market/problem and using you own funding go to market and grow organically. Keep focused on your real customer. They have far more money that any VC. Only take money from friends and family who are giving you money because they love you. Think Bill Gates, not Google. The math is rather simple. A typical VC funds less than 1 in 100 business plans that they see and 90% of their funded businesses are failures (by VC standards). Why would you want to twisted your life’s work for such slim odds.

  14. Good Article….But I think that looking for funding may not be synonymous with technology that brings about “real” and “Lasting” change.
    Real and Lasting change could involve putting the “Community” that adds value to your service first in a way that may eventually break the cycle of inequitable distribution of monetary value to the “Corp”

  15. I have always enjoyed McNealy. Cool dude. But come on! You left SUNW because the stock was crashing and you wanted out of a dying business…Not because you wanted to spend time with your kids,

  16. Why shouldn’t they? ABC advertises ABC shows and not NBC or CBS’s. This is one reason why some people and companies create large networks (whether they are broadcast or information networks); to help promote each other.

  17. “A few years ago, Google started favoring some of their own websites over others” I am happy for google to provide me an option “do you want our services to be displayed first or not” and I’d check that blindly because so far, google’s services have been much better at providing me with what I need.

  18. Boz Bundalo

    Putting Steve Jobs and open web and open source in the same article is blasphemy. I don’t know how you can connect the two and be serious. He was the embodiment of everything you are afraid of. Proprietary platforms driven by locking users in so they cannot leave and have to keep buying things for him under the excuse of “experience”.

    And the reason why others will try to think about what would Steve do is because everyone saw that locked down, proprietary approach is making A TON of money. He single-handedly contributed and instigated what you are afraid of.

    • Steve Jobs was successful in many ways. There are lessons that can be learnt from what he did, and those lessons can be applied to any technology, be it open source.

      And user experience is not an excuse. Its the reason people buy things. Try making stuff without it, and see if you are able to sell a single piece of it.

    • panjwani_ajay

      apple being closed does not mean that one cannot browse certain sites. think of apple as a company that charges double ( consumers hate that) but delivers half tco (businesses love that). and it is able to pull that off only by keeping certain things closed.

      • Vincent Amari

        May be so, but 2 weeks into my new Android phone and I’m still struggling to export MY sms text messages from MY iPhone. Even Apple support doesn’t respond to my requests for help with this. I think they forget I was a customer for many years, and if this was easily resolved I could become a customer again!