Worried by iPhone, Mobile Cos Turn To Synaptics

The LG Secret launched today with a touch screen powered by Synaptics touch capacitors, a technology whose star has risen in the consumer devices universe in the wake of the iPhone. The iPhone uses a grid layout of capacitive sensors to enable multi-finger gestures, something that wouldn’t be possible with resistive sensors. Sensing capacitors are one of the many ways electronics companies can create touch-sensitive controls, but they’re expensive and obviously require skin-to-device contact in order to work.

Prior generations of touch screens have used resistive sensors, which rather than relying on the human body to affect a charge to make them work, rely on pressure. One big drawback of such a system is poor screen clarity, but they can be used with a finger or a stylus and traditionally they were cheaper than other sensors. The price advantage of resistive sensors, however, is dwindling, and companies such as Synaptics and Cypress Semiconductor are now poised to grow along with the market for capacitive sensing technologies. According to Synaptics, which reported earnings last week, touch phones grew to comprise 10 percent of its $79 million in sales in its most recent quarter.

Other chip firms are taking note. In February, Atmel Corp. agreed to acquire Quantum Research Group, a developer of capacitive sensing intellectual property, for $88 million in cash and up to an additional $42 million if certain contingencies are met. Chip research firm iSuppli predicts that global shipment revenue for leading touch-screen technologies will increase to $4.4 billion by 2012, up from $2.4 billion in 2006, but that includes resistive infrared and other touch technologies as well.