Adobe Taking Serious Steps Into Digital Signage Market With Screens

May 12, 2017 by Dave Haynes

Adobe Systems has a small team refining a digital signage platform called Screens that now loads when users fire up one of the giant software company’s flagship products, Adobe Experience Manager.

The product has quietly been on the market for about two years now, and its product managers say the framework and functionality is all in place. Now the primary effort is to buff up what is now a fairly pedestrian, minimalist user experience.

The effort is being driven by the marketing technology group and not, as many people might expect, by the creative cloud side of the company that is behind iconic products like Photoshop and AfterEffects. The marketing technology cloud team is the one that has developed products for everything from website development to advertising campaign technology and email marketing.

The premise is that Screens is in with all the the other marketing-driven elements in Adobe’s cloud-based marketing technology platform, or stack. That means analytics, ad targeting, digital asset management, data-driven content triggers, the whole thing, out of one desktop and one login.

That, the Adobe folks I have chatted with, is very attractive to an already vast Adobe user database that doesn’t want to buy, learn and use other, parallel software – like a signage CMS – if they don’t have to.

“The reality is, and I’m saying this internally around Adobe, is that when it comes to digital signage, Adobe’s always been in that market,” says Jim Stoklosa, Sr. Product Manager for Adobe AEM Screens. “Our Creative Cloud products are synonymous with content creation, with PhotoShop and AfterEffects, primarily, and some of the other tools that people might want to use to create content. We’ve always been there, it’s just historically we haven’t had a product to assemble and schedule and publish and, ultimately, playback on a device.”

“So that’s the piece that we’re really adding,” continues Stoklosa, who joined Adobe last year after several years in the signage industry with companies like InReality, Omnivex and Richardson. “But the way we’ve added it is architected so that you can communicate with all of the other pieces, so that it’s a seamless integration.”

“There’s a lot of really little pieces inside here that are extremely powerful, and again, job number one for me is to just really blend everything together into a pretty package, that we can then go out and bring to our clients and, ultimately, to non-clients, and show them exactly what this platform can do and how it really can lower the total cost of ownership on the creation and maintenance side, and the operating systems that we support.”

Stoklosa says Adobe is not necessarily trying to “out-technology” established software players in the signage market who have a lot of slick and solid functionality. What Adobe can offer, however, is something integrated that allows a huge user base agencies of all stripes that do work for brands. If those agencies can stay in the software toolset they already know, and use its outputs to also execute signage, they can worry a lot less about how to do something and stay focused on the strategy and message.

The user experience I saw in a demo is a SaaS service with a web login, and users navigate around a pretty straight-forward set of screens. There is device management at a base level, but Adobe recommends that if it is needed for the job, operators use one of the more hardcore mobile device management tools on the market.

The players run on MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows and Samsung’s Tizen OS (for “smart signage” panels), and players for both Linux and LG’s WebOS are in development. The software media player itself is kinda sorta a web player, as opposed to a native player. “So, they are essentially web players,” says Stoklosa. “If you’re familiar with some of the platforms out there that basically what they do is they take HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. And I like that icon at the very beginning because it’s like a machine. It spits out a native app, so you wind up with an AP tag, or you wind up with a DIVX file. So it is sort of compiled, but it starts off as web … it’s basically a shell that then has what we call firmware, or payload, that goes inside of it that is web-based. In that sense, it’s almost a bit of a hybrid. That’s what allows us to extend it out to different platforms.”

There’s a bunch of interesting bells and whistles that Cedric Huesler, the Director of Product Management for Digital Experience Management at Adobe, walked me through. There is serious data-tagging, as you might expect. Media assets, like images, are smart – so the right resolution asset finds the screen that supports that. Organization of networks is built around locations. It would all be fairly familiar to someone who’s seen a few CMS platforms. I’ve seen scores, and after awhile, they all kinda look the same.

Screens shows up when a user logs in on Experience Manager. It’s free to monkey around with, but if users want to actively use Screens to run a network, it costs money – what Adobe terms as an add-on to AEM. The SaaS licensing model is player-based. I did not ask for actual numbers because I had a clear sense there was a big It Depends coming.

That’s particularly true, Huesler concedes, because a lot of the business with AEM is on the enterprise side, where the deals are larger and  more involved.

He says when the company started looking at the signage space, the team saw a lot of CMS options, and thought through whether Adobe got into signage through acquisition or by building a solution. “And then we basically said, ‘No, let’s build it from scratch, so it’s really nicely integrated.'”

Huesler couldn’t talk about the dedicated headcount for Screens, but it’s not all that big. Think in terms of the staff size of dozens of CMS firms out there. The difference, though, is the Screens people have access to 100s of engineers, creative teams, web teams, marketers and enterprise sales people. Adobe has some 15,000 people.

And they are leveraging a lot of existing, evolving functionality in the Adobe software stack, as opposed to building new functionality.

“The down side of things,” Huesler says, “is it takes sometimes longer to get the whole machinery running in a big company like Adobe. But trust me, once it does get running, Oh My God. It runs!”

Screens is still a little bit like a start-up, though the product was demo’d and featured recently at the company’s big annual partner and user meet-up. There are multiple proof of concept efforts in the field – some with BIG brands – but nothing that can be talked up publicly, as yet.

“Just getting the whole machinery running was basically what keeps us busy right now,” says Huesler.

“I think in 12 months from now, there’s gonna be quite a difference. We definitely want to be next year at the Adobe summit. We want to be able to have reference-able customers that will be able to talk on the record, on how they think this product is, and how it builds value for them.”

So … we have another very large, hyper-connected company with a huge user-base and top of mind awareness, now actively selling into the digital signage space – against companies who walk into damn near every meeting starting off with an explainer on who they are and what they do.

Is Screens any good? Dunno. My guess is capabilities and performance is probably pretty so-so, for now – but an awful lot of jobs out there are never going to need the sophistication of some of the more celebrated signage CMS platforms on the market. The brand client that wants to get some stuff on screens in its common areas, for example, if the team that did an interactive solution for tablets and phones in Experience Manager could simply export a tweaked version for the touchscreen in a lobby, out of the same system.

It’s human nature that most busy people are not looking for more new things to learn and use. So if a company like Adobe has a product that can do what a user needs, without them even leaving the same desktop user experience, that’s going to make some of them happy and satisfied. And if there are deficiencies, the resources exist in Adobe to remedy them as quickly as they want. Adobe did $5.85B in sales in 2016.

It is a little reminiscent of what’s going on with Coca-Cola and Google. That huge global brand is using all the components and capabilities available within Google – all the way up to DoubleClick – to plan, schedule, execute and manage a growing network across retail and food services partners. They went that route, in part, because their agency partners could continue to use already familiar tools like DoubleClick.

I didn’t get any sense this is a skunkworks operation for Adobe. But there’s also little evidence this is a big deal around the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. I banged around the Adobe site for a while, and could not even find a dedicated web page or pages about Screens. There are bits and pieces, and the round to Screens is through Sites, the product used to plan and deliver desktop, tablet and mobile web sites.

Here’s a video …

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