The light bulb goes digital

January 26, 2010: 8:30 AM ET

Companies for years have toyed with light-emitting diodes, which use the same technology as computer chips. Now LEDs are having their day in the sun.

An assortment of new LED bulbs, including two models from Philips (top), Cree (bottom right), and Lemnis (bottom left), surround Philips's 60-watt replacement bulb, which hasn't hit the market yet.

The $100 billion global lighting industry is undergoing radical change: New office buildings and retail outlets are abandoning fluorescent lighting in favor of LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, those tiny, energy-efficient, long-lasting, and blindingly bright points of light. Giants such as GE (GE) and Philips are shifting production from incandescent bulbs to LEDs. Even the local Home Depot (HD) -- which today probably stocks only a couple of LED lighting products -- will soon carry a bouquet of LED bulbs, ultimately edging out fluorescents and halogen lamps. By the end of the decade, analysts predict, LEDs will be the dominant source for commercial and residential lighting.

LEDs, which are based on a technology similar to that of computer chips, have more in common in their design and manufacture with your laptop than with the incandescent bulb that Thomas Edison patented almost 130 years ago. As lighting goes digital, the industry is likely to encounter some of the same upheaval that took place when television, music, and other businesses shifted away from analog technologies.

Lighting is dominated by three enormous global companies: General Electric, Germany's OSRAM (makers of Sylvania products), and the Dutch company Philips. But with LEDs coming on strong, the industry is now opening up to companies such as Samsung, LG, and Panasonic (PC), which have expertise in semiconductors. More

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  • Seagate's former CEO lights up

    Tech veteran Watkins talks about why he took the top job at LED maker Bridgelux.

    A year after he was booted from the top spot at hard drive-maker Seagate (STX), Bill Watkins has taken on the CEO job at Sunnyvale, CA-based LED lighting company Bridgelux. Bridgelux makes LED (light emitting diode) chips and arrays for use in general lighting applications for everything from streetlights to warehouses.

    "I always knew I would go MORE

    - Jan 13, 2010 5:48 AM ET
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