What Google’s Chromebox Means For Digital Signage


In the waning minutes of the DSE trade show floor last week my time freed up long enough to get into the Intel booth.

There was the eye candy stuff with fuzzy business models, as always. But there was also a little section set aside for a fascinating and possibly very disruptive entry into digital signage by Google, the monster long feared capable of crushing many of the small software companies in this sector.

Google was in the Intel booth because it’s Intel and Google knows who they are, versus many/most of the companies in the DS ecosystem. The company was also they were collectively showing a $179 Asus Chromebox, a mini PC/device about the size of a couple of stacked pieces of bread. It has an Intel Celeron processor inside and one of its use cases being touted was digital signage.

I picked up a one-sheet at the stand that simply said: Chromebox of Signage.

So after years of Google largely ignoring the digital signage sector, the business opportunity is now getting big enough and the hardware costs small enough to justify throwing some resources at it and leverage the Chrome browser platform and eco-system.

As noted in an earlier DSE post, the disruptive thing is not really that the unit costs $180. There are now many devices of varying quality, running Android or some other kind of Linux, that cost less than that – some quite a bit less.

Here’s what is going on and what it means:

The box:

Chromebox and Chromebooks are Google-branded and supported standalone devices and laptops. They run the Chrome operating system (as opposed to the Chrome browser that runs on multiple other operating systems like Windows). They get updates, multiple layers of security and virus protection from the Google cloud. They also deal with file storage largely on the cloud. They behave move like single-purpose edge devices than PCs out in the field. They become media players for digital signage by running in kiosk mode and the proposition is that the Google admin management condole can handle dozens or thousands of those players on a network. They are also designed and optimized for web-delivered content and not for running heavy desktop software clients.

Users get 100GB of Google Drive space, and can access all of their data and files in the cloud by  logging in to their Google Account on any device, anywhere.

The units have a 4th generation Intel Celeron  processor as a base but there are faster Core i3 and i7 options.  The units have 802.11 b/g/n dual-band Wi-Fi, four USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth 4.0 and an SD card reader. There are HDMI and DisplayPort outputs and support for 4K/UHD) displays.

The platform:

Well, it’s Google and the whole range of business back-end services and capabilities that are largely unknown to most consumers who think of Google as their default search engine and non-work email client. There’s a crazy amount of things that can all of sudden be applied and integrated, starting at calendars and including, intriguingly, a very well established hyperlocal ad targeting engine you may have heard of: AdSense. That ad platform can do a lot more than simple JPEG side banner ads.

The way this works is that a media player will run within the Chrome OS and browser as an app. The operating system IS the browser. You don’t need an application that starts Chrome and manages it. As I understand it, the boxes is set up so that a default “app” like a signage player can just boot up.

These things have built-in device management – something critical to ANY network with devices deployed beyond a single location. They’re also designed to just tick and tick and tick along.

About three years ago Byron Darlison pretty much tore up the plan for his company Rise Vision and re-cast what his digital signage system was all about, moving entirely to a Google-centric platform. It was pretty visionary, and makes his now free CMS a poster-child for this new system.

“Their entire ecosystem is delivering more enablers than I ever imagined,” says Darlison. “Our original vision was to deliver HTML content. Now our Player Application lives within that browser with Packaged Apps and it is in constant communication with our servers, picking up and rendering content as it is changed. We maintain that real-time, instantaneous connection with our servers via a Google-provided service called Channels.”

“We utilize their authentication to manage users,” adds Darlison. “We have just released a small editor that allows Users to post content easily and that content is stored on Google Drive, which means a User can use Google’s share model to allow anyone else they choose to contribute to that content. Google Drive publishes that content as a web page, for that User, into the Presentations that we run on their Displays.”

“We, of course, reside upon Google App Engine which means that we don’t even think about infrastructure, we only think about software development. As our User base grows our constant demand on App Engine is spinning up more and more dedicated cycles for us which as a byproduct of these cycles always running there is no lag, our application is actually getting faster and faster the more people use it. And, those people can be anywhere on the planet, we are now in over 111 countries.”

Jason Cremins, CEO of Signagelive, is another big cloud guy and intrigued by the possibilities. He has a Swiss Army knife platform designed to run on as many different types of devices as is possible. This is another, though he doesn’t necessarily see it is a game-changer.

The main roadblock he sees is the per device admin condole fee that applies, as we both understand it, PER DEVICE. So a $179 device is really a $329 device, which means it is no longer all that inexpensive when compared with Intel NUCs and no end of commercial-grade Android devices.

My take is that this is a really interesting development to see Google paying attention to this sector, but the lower cost Asus Chromebox and the coming-out thing with Intel are the truly new bits. If you go on the Google Chrome Store site you will see Rise Vision and another company, JADS, have had signage “apps” on there for a while.

What is also really interesting is how the Chrome Store can be a marketplace for these extension-like apps. So developers could build and market digital signage apps – let’s say something that readily plugs into a meeting room management system – through the store and deliver as free, paid or paid subscription apps. This isn’t all about full signage services.

CMS companies whose vertical is Fortune 1000 companies should be intrigued by this, but I wouldn’t think they are at much risk of losing business to Google.

However, the many, many companies that go after the small business market are probably looking at this with a little trepidation, to say the least.

That includes the big display companies that are attacking the smart signage business with built-in media players. If I was a display guy with an OPS (slot-loaded player) set-up, I’d be looking at getting a Chromebox that was OPS compatible.

In some respects Intel and Google have mainstreamed what Rise Vision has quietly been doing the last few years. Companies can be dismissive of what the Rise guys do as entry-level, free-minded business they don’t want, but Rise has in excess of 26,000 opened accounts. If a third are inactive (no idea), that’s still a hell of a lot of end-points running through the Google cloud.

Plan to write more about this as I learn more …

9 thoughts on “What Google’s Chromebox Means For Digital Signage”

  1. Great analysis Dave. What is really neat about Google’s offering is how it pulls digital signage into the bigger picture. Educational facilities and businesses that are using Chrome Device Management to roll out Chromebooks and the new lowcost Google Video Conferencing product (http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/business/solutions/for-meetings.html) can leverage the same tools to manage and deploy their Chromeboxes for digital signage.

    The other thing Chrome brings is security. In an annual competition, last year no one was able to crack Chrome OS’s defenses and this year they have posted a $2.7 Million reward for anyone that can break it http://www.digitaltrends.com/web/can-hack-chrome-os-google-puts-2-72m-bounty/

    It has been exciting to work with Google on our packaged app that is available in their chrome webstore and we think their commitment to digital signage will bring many great things in 2014.

  2. It’s really interesting (and exciting) to see Google acknowledge the ability to position the Chormebox for digital signage applications. For some like the guys at Rise Vision and ourselves, it verifies that the decision to focus on a non-device strategy for our business models is the right one. For others that are hanging on to the expectation of generating income from rebranding and reselling PCs for digital signage, it is another nail in the coffin.

    Whether it be an Samsung SSP Display, LG WebOS Display, IAdea device, Google Chromebox or the range of non-PC digital signage devices on the market; you cannot ignore the fact that we are in a post-PC (credit John Wang of IAdea) era.

    By commoditizing or eliminating the player in a digital signage solution, the focus will be on the choice of CMS, support and business model, which can only be a good thing for customers as they try to navigate their way through the digital signage maze.

  3. Per device admin console fee… You’re pricing that at $150. Could you elaborate? To the best of my knowledge, the per device fee is $30, and the Admin console is an extra, not a necessity. Am I mistaken?

    Will this work with Intel’s AVA platform?

    With companies like Marvell looking to get into signage with an SOC system, I wonder if this won’t be too late to the game? If they can manage to replicate the Chromecast as a digital signage player it could blow this price point out of the water.

    I use Rise. This isn’t revolutionary so far. A Celeron NUC with Ubuntu works great, is at the same price point, and is far more feature rich. If they can nail ease of use… Perhaps. But when you can get a CM100 Android stick for $225, and plug and play… Raspberry Pi also works as a signage player for under $100.

    Jason Cremins – People will still pay for convenience. The definition of “Digital Signage Player” is still varied enough for plenty of verticals in the market. Anyone who is “just” rebranding a PC had to know that was going to be a short lived business. I’ve seen very few around here that aren’t trying to offer something on top of the computer… Consulting, design, etc… Currently the Rise player is dead easy to install on any Windows/Linux box, and yet people buy “players”.

    • Hi Jason

      I have asked Google’s product people for more information. but they said $150 last week at the Intel booth.

      Agree on Marvell, as the Chromecast stick IS a Marvell stick and the tech is not exclusive to Google.

  4. @Jason Maggard – as Dave has said the Google guy on the Intel Booth at DSE said that the cost for the admin console was a one-time $150. Hopefully this is not mandatory and they will expose the the SDK to developers to be able to incorporate into their CMS platforms. This is what Samsung has done with their SoC devices and others are doing based on ongoing discussions.

    I agree with your point regarding convenience, at present his comes packaged with a Windows PC in most cases. This will change over time and as a software vendor with a Distribution strategy, our job is to ensure that nonPC devices are bundled and on the shelf ready for resellers to purchase and deploy to their customers.

  5. The detail is in the design, content management, planning, support and installation of digital signage …the “player” just needs a nice price point and be capable of 24/7 usage. It’s the clever customisations and bespoke solutions that software houses are able to come up with that will be key. Per player licenses are ugly for the customer…per site licenses need to be looked at by many. As Jason Cremins said “the focus will be on the choice of CMS, support and business model”

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