EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Panasonic president, Fumio Ohtsubo, predicts streamlined, eco-friendly technology future

There are many things you’d expect of a consumer electronics company celebrating its 90th anniversary – but changing its name and predicting a radical reduction in the range of products it may eventually sell aren’t necessarily on the list. Yet that’s precisely what Panasonic has just done.

Until now, Panasonic has been just one brand name of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company – founded in 1918 by the 23-year-old Konosuke Matsushita, his year-younger wife and teenage-prodigy brother-in-law (15).

The company began making attachment plugs to make the most of light-sockets , and now sells everything from white goods and fitness equipment to industrial machinery and even houses, under sub-brands as diverse as National and Technics. As from this year, it all becomes Panasonic, from flatscreens to fridges.

Panasonic and the future of consumer electronics

The man driving these changes is company president, Fumio Ohtsubo – with whom we recently enjoyed an exclusive, hour-long interview.

Firstly, we asked him what the singular Panasonic brand will stand for around the world. He says: “Panasonic sees everything from the point of view of the consumer – making their lives more comfortable and more practical”.

“I don’t think there’s any consumer electronics company that’s closer to the consumer’s everyday life in its consideration of development, manufacturing and service”, he claims.

Mr Ohtsubo recognises that pricing plays a major part as well as branding, but stresses that Panasonic aims to offer “quality and service at the lowest price. You need to cover that whole range to deliver true value to the consumer”.

As well as a vision of a single-brand company to bring the business in line with mono-monikered rivals such as Sony and Samsung (the key two manufacturers Panasonic benchmarks as competition), Mr Ohtsubo has plans to streamline his customers lives – and their power consumption – too.

TV and mobile takeover

He predicts a consumer electronics future where a multi-tasking TV does everything in the home – including recording and playback – and a multimedia smartphone informs and entertains you everywhere else. It’s no coincidence, naturally, that Panasonic plans to re-enter the European mobile phone market sometime after 2010, “with an incredibly advanced offering”.

In the meantime, its TV-as-the-hub-of-the-home concept is even more advanced, with the European introduction of internet-enabled VieraCast flatscreens in Spring 2009. Such sets are already available in the US and Japan – and in the case of the latter are already interfacing with other web-friendly systems such as security cameras.

“Before, TV was passive: it was broadcast and you watched it. Now, the TV is becoming an interface to link home with society,” says Mr Ohtsubo.
He strongly believes TVs will remain the key viewing medium, despite the rise of people tuning in an increasing array of devices.

“Yes, you can watch anytime, anywhere, but TV’s main place is in living rooms – laptops and mobiles are just satellite products,” he says, adding that he feels younger viewers who now consume large amounts of TV via PCs and mobiles will migrate to traditional TVs as they get older.

The rise of ever-larger, ever higher-resolution screens - check out Panasonic's prototype 150in Super HD plasma below - should only cement TV's central role.

Technology with an environmental conscience

Even with larger screens on the menu, Panasonic plans to be the most eco-friendly electronics manufacturer, too – by making the manufacturing process for its products – as well as the products themselves – more energy efficient.

As Panasonic builds the machines that make the products (not to mention the factories themselves), it’s able to apply energy-saving measures at every stage of the process – and even at the end of a product’s lifecycle, via a growing recycling division that’s even starting to take in other company’s kit.

Panasonic’s 350,000 employees also have to get in on the act – each wears an eco badge (see Mr Ohtsubo's below) to remind them of their responsibilities, and is expected to contribute to the company’s aim of cutting its carbon emissions by 300,000 tonnes by 2010, plus get involved in other environmental projects such as tree-planting or river clearance.

All very admirable, obviously, but does the average consumer care? Mr Ohtsubo admits they might need some persuasion: “Consumers are already in the eco mindset, but manufacturers have to push it. We’re planning more marketing and education on the issue”.

Super-slim, energy-efficient plasmas

Doubtless some of that marketing will accompany Panasonic’s key 2009 launches, which will include ultra-slim (24.7mm) plasma TVs that’ll use just 100W of power (the average 42in plasma currently uses 180-200W).

Those sets, which will also boast Wireless HD connectivity (using RF – so you can bung that Blu-ray player in the cupboard), should be in the shops by next Christmas.

Panasonic is also launching a range of energy-efficient white goods (fridges, freezers and washing machines) into Europe next March/April – though sadly the Panasonic fuel-cell-powered bike won’t be pedalling its way over from Japan just yet.

Panasonic's plans with Pioneer

Returning to TVs, 2009 will also see the first Pioneer Kuro sets using Panasonic plasma panels. Mr Ohtsubo says all of Panasonic’s panels – including the new slimline designs – will be available to Pioneer and there’s “no deal” as to the Kuros keeping to different market sectors than its own, Viera TVs.

He added that from next year, Panasonic will also start to supply screens to further manufacturers, but he doesn’t know how much longer so many TV rivals can remain competitive – something already borne out by recent market withdrawals. “Whether it’s plasma or LCD, manufacturers will definitely decrease over the next few years,” he predicts.

He has no worries about Panasonic itself, however, despite refusing to be drawn on just what technologies the company is working on to keep itself at the top of the TV tree. “OLED, LCD, plasma – it’s less important than the role of TV itself, that of being an interface between home and society. Panasonic will be number one in TV – whatever the technology”, Mr Ohtsubo bullishly believes.

To see more of the manufacturer’s 90-year milestones, you can visit the dedicated Panasonic Design Museum website for a showcase of legacy lovelies - such as the dual light-socket adapter below.

We're also expecting some more 90th anniversary announcements later this month at the CEATEC Show in Japan, from which we'll be reporting live on the plans, predictions and innovations of Panasonic and many other of its rivals.