Michael Juran and his three business partners had this crazy idea that display technology was about to explode into the market.
They left their jobs at Hewlett-Packard and started their own company, Altia Inc. to develop technology that would help humans interact with computers. They felt the world was on the verge of a touch screen technology revolution.
That was 1991.
Turned out, the world wasn’t as ready as they were. Of course, there was a market for graphic display in embedded systems such as in-car navigation. And, in those early years of the company, Altia developed the software tools for rapid prototype, which is to take a product from concept to production.
They bootstrapped the company and found clients in the airplane and auto industries. The company grew slowly and always turned a profit.
Then in 2007, computer giant Apple released the iPhone. Suddenly touch screen technology was in demand for everything from car dashboards to kitchen appliances.
“It turned on a dime,” said Juran Altia’s CEO. “How quickly it went from consumers saying ‘why do I want a display screen?’ to ‘I don’t’ want it if it doesn’t have a display screen.’”
Since 2007, the company has rapidly grown and now has 40 employees — nine hired in the last six months — and corporate customers such as Fiat and Whirlpool. In 2010, Altia expanded its reach to Europe, Japan and China, and its revenue was about $10 million.
“Tons of companies that never even thought about touch screen have to do it now,” said Jason Williamson, Altia’s director of marketing. “They’ll be seen as old-fashioned if they don’t have touch screen.”
One thing that Altia knew from the start was that software engineers alone did not hold the key to user interface technology. In fact, consumers were complaining about the usability of display technology. It was clunky, difficult. It made their lives more complicated, not easier.
Altia had the idea of pairing graphic artists and software engineers — two groups of professionals that often clash — to make prototypes and models and together see the project through from conception to production. The product had to work and be usable, but it also had to look cool and be fun to use.
“That is where Altia came in and said, ‘How do we marry those two so there is a path from point A to B that is economical and done in a timely fashion and gets the concept from the artist’s imagination onto a hunk of chips,’” Juran said.
The firm was ready when automakers came calling for touch screen “infotainment” and message centers in the dashboards to replace dials and knobs. Those display dashboards are the fastest growing market for Altia.
In 2010, the company saw 77 percent growth in just its automotive clients. This year, when Fisker introduces its new electric car, the dashboard will be Altia’s display technology.
“Our technology was really solid — we had key customers in automotive that helped us get our technology solid,” Juran said. “So, we had this really nice platform to jump from.”
Companies, not traditionally into software development, are scrambling toward touch-screen technology. Altia has built touch screens for Nordic Track and Star Trac fitness equipment and is currently working on touch screens for refrigerators, washers, dryers, ovens and even sewing machines.
“At this point companies like GM, Ford, Whirlpool determined that usability actually sells a product,” Juran said. “Apple doing so well even during a recession has proven to the metal bending, nuts and bolts companies that there is profit in sizzle.”
Now, with such demand, the touch screen technology that might have been out budget for some appliance companies is cheaper than the traditional knobs and dials.
At a recent consumer electronics trade show, Mattel showed off its new Hot Wheels car, which featured a camera and display technology and is expected to retail at $59.
“You can put display on anything,” Juran said.
These days, Juran shies from the hyperbole of technology gurus who say, “we’re on the verge of changing the world” because the technology landscape is difficult to predict, he said. He knows about that.
So, one way he checks the landscape is to cruise the appliance isles in electronics stores to see how many have display and touch screens. There are new ones every day, he said.
It seems the world is now ready.