What Google’s Chromebox Means For Digital Signage

February 16, 2014 by Dave Haynes


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 …

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