Google’s Evolving Future In Digital Signage

October 30, 2015 by Dave Haynes



Google booth at DSE 2015

The digital signage ecosystem has developed at least two distinct camps, with distinct points of view, about the presence of tech giant Google in this relatively teeny industry.

On one hand, there are people like me who think a company with a huge impact and footprint on the everyday working and personal lives of billions is hard to dismiss and ignore. While almost every software company focused on digital signage has headcounts of less than 40 people, Google has 1,000s of frighteningly smart people, as well as vast resources,  partnerships and mindshare.

On the other hand, there are people who think Google is just dabbling in signage – as it does in many, many things – and won’t have any more success in signage than other tech giants – like Cisco, Intel, HP, all of whom have spent a lot of money and generated noise, but not really produced or delivered much.

So when a story surfaced yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting Google was going to fold its ChromeOS into Android, that raised a bunch of eyebrows. People like me reacted with some surprise. Naysayers said they knew that was going to happen.

As is usually the case, what’s going on is not all that simple.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday:

Alphabet Inc.’s Google plans to fold its Chrome operating system for personal computers into its Android mobile operating system, according to people familiar with the matter, a sign of the growing dominance of mobile computing.

Google engineers have been working for roughly two years to combine the operating systems and have made progress recently, two of the people said. The company plans to unveil its new, single operating system in 2017, but expects to show off an early version next year, one of the people said.

The article goes on at length about the reasoning behind this, notably that having two competing operating systems doesn’t make a lot of long-term sense as the lines between desktop and mobile computing continue to blur. Google even said when ChromeOS was first announced back in 2009 that it might one day merge with Android.

The mobile operating system has 1.4 billion users, while sales of ChromeOS devices – stripped-down laptops and the Chromeboxes used in schools, meeting rooms and digital signage jobs – will be about 8 million for 2015. VERY different scale, so you can understand why one might get more attention.

A single operating system also falls in line with efforts to streamline development and customer marketing.

Google has been talking to partners about this shift for at least a couple of years, and a few things have happened recently that suggested that ChromeOS was not getting as much attention. I talked to a guy who went to the company’s big I/O conference, who said ChromeOS and Chrome for Work were pretty much absent. Some of the people who were involved at the start of the year with ChromeOS digital signage went on to other things (though in big companies, movement is probably constant). And where I used to see references for Chrome for Work, I also started seeing Android for Work, sometimes together.

However, it’s not clear at all that ChromeOS is going away. Google’s official statement is that it remains very committed to ChromeOS, and it would be hard to imagine the company leaving 1,000s of schools hanging with an abandoned platform or devices that can’t get updated. Google says 30,000 Chromebooks go into classrooms every new day. Google has also sold a LOT of Chromebox bundles to businesses, disrupting the wildly expensive videoconference hardware business with low-cost alternatives.

Much more likely is that the Chrome devices sold today would be compatible with a merged DroidChrome/ChromeDroid/Whatever OS.

Here’s what the guy who runs all this says:

This is a very good, deeper dive on the broader story, from Re/code:

So what does this mean for Google’s role in digital signage?

It’s not getting out of the game. What tends to be somewhat forgotten is that Google was part of the signage ecosystem long before the arrival of Chromeboxes, and the company taking a booth at Digital Signage Expo. Android, like Chrome, is a Google product, and there are dozens of companies using Android – both as native and web-driven signage content management systems.

The special report I put out recently confirmed Android is still very much a going concern for most of these companies, and may be more so going forward as Google’s Android for Work evolves and adds capabilities — particularly if that platform offers things that improve device management, software distribution and security.

The difference is that in the early days of Android being used for signage, it was happening without any real Google attention. It was an open platform that ran on low-cost, non-PC devices that couldn’t run no-cost Linux, and meant no need for a Windows license.

These days, Google looks at things like digital signage players and kiosks as single-use devices that could run off its OS and use complementary services. Android for Work is all about business apps, and signage is a business application.

While there were 10 or so companies at the Google booth at DSE talking about how they were getting their CMS platforms running on Chromeboxes, none of them are ChromeOS-only companies. Australia’s StratosMedia – which is expanding into North America – is arguably the most Chrome-centric platform out there, and it is not tied to working only on Chrome devices.

Some companies like the UK’s Signagelive have seized the moment and opportunity, gone after Chrome opportunities and leveraged Google’s deep business ties and door-opening capabilities. But I’ve not seen much from many of the other companies that touted themselves as Google partners. It may be happening, but it’s not obvious.

Part of the issue with Chromeboxes and signage has been cost. The devices can be inexpensive, starting at $180 USD, and ChromeOS gets a lot of bang for the low buck – doing a great job optimizing graphics even on the entry-level units. But more powerful Chromeboxes cost as much as PCs. While the OS is free, the Chrome management software Google has available as a subscription adds $50 a year, or $150 one-time. So a PC needs Windows for $80, and a Chromebox has a free OS but needs $150 to add the Web-driven management console (which is optional, but Google not surprisingly encourages its partners to market it).

I’ve talked to companies that like the server-based distribution and security of ChromeOS, but know there have also been some issues with a cloud-based system that pushes out new releases and affects stability.

The propellerhead crowd can probably argue for days about the merits of ChromeOS versus Android versus Linux (and Android is a variant of Linux, as is ChromeOS) versus Windows. They could also argue endlessly about unified, streamlined operating systems, like Windows 10 is doing, versus companies like Apple that have a distinct mobile platform in iOS and its desktop Mac OS.

Most of that stuff is way over my head and I am not going there.

What I think is that ChromeOS as we knew it, albeit briefly, for digital signage is probably not going to see a repeat of the push and presence seen in 2014 or certainly at DSE 2015. The software companies that have done work to get Chromebox-compliant still have those devices as endpoints, and most of them are cross-platform companies anyway. The migration path and blending of Chrome and Android will likely just be a variation on the challenges their developers already face staying on top of a shifting, evolving platform, be that Android, Chrome or the display companies’ system on chip panels.

I think you’ll see more attention from Google, from the signage lens, on Android for services and from device manufacturers on players that get beyond being adapted (and even hacked/rooted) consumer gadgets. Right now there are VERY few commercial-grade Android devices out there that could be used for signage. The tech blogs are suggesting that next year manufacturers will get beyond phones and tablets, and start making personal computers that run Android. So we could be seeing Google-approved Chromeboxes and Google-approved Android Somethings.

The latter will almost certainly cost more than the cheap Android set-top boxes and sticks on the market, but they’ll have a lot more going on inside and in the cloud than something coming off a container ship from China. One of the comments I’ve seen a lot is the allure of Google doing with Android what it does with Chrome – where upgrades are pushed by Google instead of by the manufacturers or carriers, which is universally regarded as a mess.

Google likes things that scale, like phones and tablets and IoT devices. The company’s IoT Brillo OS, which is a lite version of Android, is the sort of thing that could add gazillions of new end-points, all generating data and rolling that data up into useful, marketable insights.

Whether on Chrome devices or Android devices, or Brillo, digital signage represents more end-points. If we are indeed going to see a world that has screens everywhere, I can’t imagine Google deciding it doesn’t want in on the opportunity for all those new endpoints, particularly when they can not only generate data, but react to it and present it on screens.

I suspect the supporters, skeptics and naysayers all have a point of view. Use the comments, or if you have a lot to say, I’d welcome guest posts.


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