When the little Asus Chromebit HDMI stick was finally released last fall, I was anxious to get my hands on one to see what an $85 USD device could offer as an entry-level digital signage player.
I also wanted to see what Google’s Chrome Device Management Console was all about, particularly after a stripped-back version was released for single use applications like kiosks and signage.
At $2 a month, it was touting the sort of cloud-based, robust device management large networks want and need, but often isn’t available for low-end signage CMS solutions.
My executive summary: the Chromebit is a solid little stick and Google’s device management has a reasonably rich set of features, but is crazily difficult to get running.
It was not easy finding a Canadian vendor, or a US vendor that would ship into polar bear country. But I eventually did and the box showed up quickly, before Christmas. The device is solid, came nicely packaged and had a no-fuss out of the box and plug-in experience about it. I had a remote bluetooth keyboard and mouse sync’d up with it nicely once plugged in.
I downloaded a few apps, including Google’s Chrome Sign Builder and some signage apps off the Chrome store. I launched Sign Builder and learned pretty quickly you really can’t do anything without the device management license in place.
So I got a trial license from SignageLive and ran that. It works with and without the device management console.
It did not pick up and run the content I scheduled and posted via the SignageLive app until I did a powerwash – effectively a factory reset – on the Chromebit. Then the content came right up. My guess (and guess only) is the signage apps don’t co-exist happily.
It took several days to get the Chrome Device management license through a reseller. All you are ordering is a login from a reseller, so why that takes several days, I dunno. My expectation was minutes, not days.
When I did get it, I was not actually good to go. When you order the management license, the system wants it tied to a domain, like your company’s website domain name. I chose Sixteen:Nine’s, which was a mistake. I then had to insert a line of text into the DNS record for that domain, to verify the device management plan with Google.
That’s not easy to do. I had to login into the account for the domain registrar, which for me somehow or other ended up being in Australia. I looked at my control panel and there was no indication on how to add that text, and while Google provides instructions, they didn’t sync up with what I was seeing.
I manage my own domains and have been sporadically around this stuff for 20 years. How a regular Joe, who never deals with that stuff, would get through this step is a bit of a mystery. IT folks will handle it just fine, but many smaller businesses just outsource IT and website needs, and domain controls are not things they would regularly touch.
To me – giant pain in the ass. Doubtlessly, there are very sound reasons why these steps are in place, but still, this would be a giant pain in the ass that many/most end-users won’t expect, welcome or enjoy.
I then had a fairly intense hour or so running between my office and a big flat panel downstairs, on a speakerphone with the resellers, trying a series of things like resets to get the license activated and the management module running. It was anything but easy to get that fired up, but eventually were good to go, with considerable help from the reseller, Promevo.
Up and running
The device ticked along well for about a week, but then dropped off abruptly. There’s a chance some son-home-for-Christmas-and-he-brought-his-XBox stuff might have affected what all is plugged in behind the monitor, so I can’t say it just stopped. But it was plugged in the whole time and what got it going again was pulling the power brick out and plugging it back in.
I also ran Appspace on the device, and that also took a considerable amount of monkey business with keyboards and mouses and reset switches and on and on to get that going on the Chromebit. Let’s say a good 75-90 minutes with an Appspace tech.
It was an issue with the device being willing to cooperate, not with Appspace, and once up and running, I tried both a simple and complicated (multizone with ticker, ugh) on the screen, with a variety of videos and images. It all worked fine. The new HTML5/web centric version of Appspace is nice.
The Chromebit has been running uninterrupted for weeks now, and every so often I reach behind the spare monitor I’m using with it to test temperature. Running video doesn’t push it hard and it is barely above room temperature when I touch it.
The device management console gives me a pretty decent snapshot of the device’s state, and has handy operating features like screen captures and designated alerts. Is this the most sophisticated device management feature set out there? No, not even close. But it is better than what I’ve seen from some “mature” CMS offers that I’ve found were surprisingly weak in that area. Top: serious network operators consider good device management a base feature, not a nice to have.
Observations and ideas
The device – It’s a nice, solid device reminiscent of the Dell Cloud Connect HDMI stick. Solid and lacking a cheap plastic, this-won’t-last-long feel that I’ve experienced looking at some cheap Android HDMI dongles used as low-end signage apps.
In a couple of months, I’ve seen no degradation of play-out – no video tearing or dropped frames. I know a little company in Denver using Chromebits and they’re happy as heck with the performance.
Are these Bits genuine replacements for regular digital signage players – from Chromeboxes and Android players to regular PCs? I think that needs proper lab testing and people who really know how to stress devices. There’s not a lot of hardware to fail, however.
The software – This is where Google falls down. It is soooooooo complicated to get Chrome Device Management running, I can’t possibly see how this works out for the small to medium business crowd. A process I expected to take a few minutes, took a few days, and the benefit of me being somewhat technical.
The device management toolset works perfectly well for, let’s say, a large school district or health care service company that has 100s or 1,000s of ChromeOS devices that can all be managed off one domain and one experienced IT administrator. The benefits of the cloud really rise up and shine in that scenario.
But in the single use application of signage, it’s a lot to take on. I did hear of one company that has set itself up as the admin account for partners and customers that would come through them to use Chrome devices and get signs running. That would mean the central company worries about all the registration and admin stuff, and the partners/end-users just plug them in and perhaps find connectivity.
For CDM to work well for the small market, it either needs that sort of umbrella set-up, or the onesie-twosie crowd needs a far more simplified on-boarding and activation process that is a lot closer to buying a router on Amazon than it is to configuring a router in your home office.
All or most of the complicated stuff should be behind the scenes. For the user, you should be able to get your Chromebit, fire it up and get connected, type in an activation code, and off you go.
There is, of course, good reason and benefit to all that complication. Google engineers the hell out of things, and if you have ever booked an Adwords campaign, you absolutely need a Google staffer to hold your hand through the endless clicks and checkboxes and categories in that system. With help, you get a very sophisticated ad optimization arrangement. On your own, you’d be hopelessly lost.
Somehow, this needs to get streamlined and simplified, or Google needs partners who worry about the confusing, laborious stuff and make it easy for the buyer/user who just wants to get some videos and stills up on the TV or display panel in their shops or offices.
My understanding is the people within Google who are active in this market know things need to get simplified and streamlined. Without a doubt, it’s way easier to suggest changes than to actually make them when the management technology is also there for everything from cloud-based laptops to video-meeting systems.
Sign Builder – As entry-level as entry-level gets. You schedule a URL and that’s about the extent of what it will do. It’s not a CMS in any traditional sense, and would only be attractive to the crowd that is determined not to spend a nickel on commercial software. You can do scheduling, but you are still just scheduling URLs.
A Jay of Mvix guest posted a very thoughtful, solid piece today about commoditization of the signage space. Chromebits are part of that story. They don’t mean the need for PCs and established operating systems like Windows and Linux is gone. But they’re going to get used. They already are, as as Chromeboxes.
I have industry friends who firmly believe Google will be in and out of this business as some other giant tech companies, like Cisco, have done. I tend to disagree, though I don’t think the company has a success formula down just yet.
As big as it is, with all the resources it has, Google needs partners who make the devices, who make and market software that can sit on top of those devices and Google’s cloud infrastructure, and who can be the people in the middle to make the complicated easy.
I know there are very solid people focused on that sort of partner development, and no end of companies very interested in at least listening. So we’ll see where it all goes. Google’s made a big investment in development and resources for device management for ChromeOS, and the money is in licenses. Signage screens and kiosks have the potential represent a lot of end-points and management licenses.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.