DSE2015: Google Shows Its Digital Signage Offer

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The big buzz out of DSE 2015 was, not surprisingly, the substantial presence of online giant Google – which had a 40 by 40 foot booth attracting large crowds on the first of two trade show hall days.

I didn’t get over there until late morning, and quickly saw the area was somewhat swarmed by trade hall attendees.

In a nutshell, here’s what up …

Google sees digital signage as one of many vertical markets that might take up the use of its Chrome management platform to run applications, using low-cost, Intel-based Chromeboxes. Over the course of two briefings, with different folks, I was told Google sees digital signage in retail and public spaces as an opportunity to expand its software footprint and generate revenue. But the company sees the same thing for a laundry list of activities, including such things as point of sales systems.

The company will makes its money off the Chrome administration console software, which is effectively the device management and control layer for hardware devices running Chrome. For every Chromebox sold, they can generate $150 for a perpetual (lifetime) admin console license for that associated device, or $50 annually. The license is not transferable to different Chrome devices.

The company does not make money off hardware, but it’s those low cost, reliable, fast-booting Chrome devices by HP, Asus, Dell and now Aopen that will drive the software sales.

aopenchrome

Aopen is the latest company to debut a Chromebox. Unlike earlier iterations that have been consumer-styled micro desktops, the Aopen box shown at DSE looks very much like a lot of the small form factor digital signage players you see emerging these days. It has more ports, external antennae and a more ruggedized design.

I did not get a price, but presumably it will come in higher than the $179 entry-level Chromeboxes out there now.

There are also 19 and 22-inch tablet-like screens coming, with the product name Chromebase Commercial. There was one at the front of the booth, but the touch screen was a sluggish, hurting puppy that was anything but smooth and snappy. The final product won’t be out until later in the year, so the kinks will presumably get worked out.

Google had a booth with eight, I think, software companies showing how their web-driven players (most of them already established, limited function products) can sit on top the admin console software layer and drive digital signage applications.

The free, open source platform marketed by Rise Vision has been on Chromeboxes with Google for many months, but now there are also established, overtly commercial companies like Four Winds Interactive and Scala with players, as well as lesser known companies like Arreya, ViewNeo, Wondersign, Industry Weapon and Australia’s Stratos Media.

The attraction for software companies is they have a new platform to work off, and can bask somewhat in the reflected glory of being associated with Google.

Users will be able to buy Chrome hardware devices, go to the Chrome store, download a signage app, and get started. Signage CMSs may also market Chrome devices outside the store, noting Chrome is supported hardware just like certain Windows devices, and so on.

Yet while Google is stressing publicly that it is a platform to drop apps on that will drive digital signs, it also announced today the Chrome Sign Builder, which is positioned as a cloud-based service that helps users “create intelligent digital signs that are easy to build, schedule and deploy.” The Sign Builder has scheduling and day-parting capabilities.

So effectively, it can BE a digital signage application (or at least seems that way) without needing a third-party app.

There’s a Chrome App Builder that allows software developers, such as signage CMS companies but also interactive agencies, to build what are described as third-party kiosk apps.

The device management and reporting capabilities of the platform include alerts when players go down, remote reboots, system status reports and screen grabs. The services pale in comparison to the rich deep device management I’ve seen used by some top software companies and integrators, but it’s also as good or better than what some pure-play CMS companies offer.

There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of interest in Google’s DSE presence this week. In chatting with people, I got every opinion from respect and deep interest to dismissiveness.

My sense is the DSE presence is a learning exercise, and a very efficient way to get a pile of opinions from the vendor and user base. You could hire a research firm to develop a report, or put up a booth in the eco-system’s biggest show, and start talking. This will be way faster than casting nets, for weeks, looking for suitable partners that can round out the offer among verticals and functionality.

Does Google’s presence endanger many existing CMS companies? Well, maybe. But I’d argue a lot of companies are endangered anyway, because there are far too many in proportion to the available business. Any major software application – like word processing or CRMs – has a handful of options, not scores or hundreds.

On one hand, I can envision a big small to medium business market being interested in this platform, as well as the budget-crunched education market.But Google also has some really big business partners that are deploying Google business software to enterprise customers, who now have something else they can sell and deploy as a layered service.

The capabilities of the hardware and software are more suited to what I’d term simple signage applications, like scheduled videos or HTML5 content. But that’s all a lot of the marketplace needs or should do, and I suppose the real intelligence is in the application, as long as the hardware can keep up.

In talking with three people directly and deeply involved in this initiative, it was clear they have learned a lot about the ecosystem, and the marketplace opportunity. Google does not employ goofballs.

But it’s fair to suggest whatever aspirations the company has for this industry will be realized through work and a lot more learning, some of it hard. Part of the strategy for selling this product is through distribution partners. Despite good intentions all around, digital signage “solutions” sold through channels that are really set up for selling “things” – like mounts and cables – have seen minimal success through the years.

The people I spoke with conceded it will take education.

Personally, I find all this intriguing.

Other big companies like Cisco have come into digital signage looking like world conquerers, and exited quietly. But I think Google is very different in what it does and has to offer.

I also think Google’s presence, no matter how deep or peripheral, will be a bit of a wake-up call. I’ve long said some of the best and most interesting work being done in digital signage is by interactive companies that don’t use the term digital signage, or have even heard it used. They just build experiences and use web services to make it happen,

So with platforms like this, it’s not only possible but plausible that the core activities of deploying and managing a signage network can be capably done, without even needing a CMS.

If your company does signage software, you need to be looking deeply at web services and HTML5, and assessing how what you have not only fits in but stands out.

I also wonder a little now about all in one, system on chip displays. The proposition for those units is by embedding a player in the display, the need and cost of an external player is removed. But these Chrome devices don’t add a lot of cost, and where developing to proprietary SoC panels can take a big investment in resources to get fully working, a lot of companies already have web players that can run on Chromeboxes with comparably minimal new development.

As they say, these are interesting times.

Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes

Editor/Founder at Sixteen:Nine
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than a decade. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He's based near Toronto.
Dave Haynes

@sixteennine

Decade-old blog about digital signage and related tech, written by industry consultant and shit-disturber Dave Haynes.
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Dave Haynes

6 Comments

  • Stuart James says:

    I’m sure most of the Android based DS providers sort of already knew about Google’s intentions.. cough.. To bad their Kiosk mode wasn’t working quite right for the Android runtime environment as we were informed prior to DSE, although supposedly from what i have just read this is being fixed as we speak and will be available in Arc 43 = https://code.google.com/p/chromium/issues/detail?id=431934

    I suspect you may find many of the current Chrome DS apps very light(browser frontend only) versions as our own is at the moment and are not really suitable for an unattended installation, sure they work fine in a comfy networked environment but pull the plug to the network and see what happens. With ARC you can run the player like you do in Android and render your output into the Chrome webview and with the added management functionality push updates and ensure its running. You will have to pay Google for this privilege and in doing so help them build real estate in the DS market.

    I think Android and ChromeOS will both have their own markets going forward, more then likely Android only ARM based devices will remain lower cost as compared to Intel Chromeboxes with Google management fees.

  • Although it’s great to see Google upping their investment in our space, I’m puzzled by their approach.

    Many CMS’es have gone Android with great success. On ARM, ChromeOS could be more compelling than Android for a few reasons such as dynamic resolution support and Flash. But on an Intel platform, why use an OS designed for your grandma that just runs a browser when you can use Linux or Windows and have so much more? The 50$/year management service becomes a required hack because a browser is just not enough. Good luck doing something moderately complex like multicast sockets, disk management or offline updates with these solutions. There’s just so much stuff that DS needs that is considered a security violation in the browser world and is therefore blocked.

    It would make more sense to push Android TV at our space than ChromeOS. Curious to see where this goes.

  • Dave Haynes says:

    Thanks Stuart and Bryan for those great insights.

  • Ken Goldberg says:

    Very good write-up Dave. I agree with the likely target market (SMB, maybe Higher Ed), and the possibilities and shortcomings. Google is not pushing Android as their preferred DS operating system because a) they don’t make money on it; and b) because it is inherently a mobile optimized operating system with many of its own shortcomings outside of that arena.

    Interesting to note that Google is already competing with their partners on the software side. Sounds like the basis for a great relationship.

    One question is whether there is in fact an end game on Google’s map. If there is, it wasn’t mentioned in your briefing, because the numbers they are talking won’t move the Google dial.

    My favorite part of the post was the last paragraph regarding system on chip displays. They are in fact dead in the water, with their purveyors in deep denial of that fact. You won’t need a quad core processor to calculate the number of incremental display sales driven by SoC. But you might need one to calculate the negative ROI of the initiative. Would make a great business school case study.

  • Interesting to see that this move by google is being noticed way outside our industry as well.

    http://www.minimachines.net/actu/avec-chromeos-google-se-lance-dans-laffichage-numerique-pro-27434

    (In french)

  • Stuart James says:

    In reply to above we actually already have all the TCP/UDP multicast working properly via the Android Runtime for Chrome (ARC) environment. We have been so far super impressed with ARC minus some of the big blocker issues like Kiosk mode and some funny screen orientations.

    I am sure as many other DS providers have already done we provide much of the management functionality into our software to push silent remote updates and other functions. I would suspect that the Chrome Management capabilities will also provide far more comprehensive device / os level support which is just not technically possible as it stands with Android. So in some ways some of the technology they will be providing your existing DS provider will already have done some of this. (for example we can push silent updates of our software and even update other software on a device)

    Google being Google i am sure they will swallow a large portion of the lower end entry level market with their new offering so id suspect if you want to stay in DS industry within Android/Chrome you must offer functionality above what the chocolate factory is going to give you for free + $50 a year management.

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