Kevin Cosbey On Where Seneca’s Digital Signage PCs Fit As Set-Top Boxes And Smart Displays Proliferate

The 16:9 PODCAST IS SPONSORED BY SCREENFEED – DIGITAL SIGNAGE CONTENT

When I got into digital signage 20+ years ago, and for many years after that, PCs dominated the media player side of the business.

The big questions were around whether to use Windows or Linux, and products were differentiated on things like size and ruggedization.

That’s changed in the last few years, with more and more digital signage networks going in that used low-cost embedded players in smart displays, or worked off special purpose media players or adapted set-top boxes.

That’s shifted the ground for Seneca, an upstate New York specialty computer company that’s been in the game for decades. Seneca is part of the Denver-based AV/IT distribution giant Arrow.

There’s no doubt fewer digital signage networks now run on PCs, particularly when there’s only simple messaging like menu boards. But demands have also changed, and a lot of networks that are based around messaging are driven by real-time data and analytics that need serious computing at the edge.

Kevin Cosbey has also been in the industry for a bunch of years, and the last several have been with Seneca, where he leads business development in the digital signage sector.

We had a great chat about where PCs fit right now in the industry, and we get into how and why Seneca has put resources into developing supporting software that makes commissioning PCs way easier, and gives partners new and better remote management tools.

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TRANSCRIPT

So Mr. Cosbey, we’ve known each other for a very long time, but for those people who don’t know Seneca and to a larger extent, Arrow, can you say what that’s all about and what you guys do? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Dave. Thanks for taking some time out of your day today. I really appreciate the opportunity.

So Seneca has been a 30 plus year organization that has its roots in traditional technology distribution, and over the course of those 30 years, six years ago, Arrow Electronics actually acquired us, and since then we’ve been part of the Arrow family as it worked. Ultimately, for those that are familiar with Arrow, a lot of people might just have the normal idea that Arrow’s a big IT distribution company, but we fall under the services group. So our focus still is around services as it relates to digital signage services, as it’s around technology to build a real solution and not just focus on speeds and feeds of hardware. So Arrow is a big massive company but the nice thing is: Seneca still runs through our veins.

And the company’s based in Syracuse still, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep. The majority of our engineering group is in Syracuse, support’s in Syracuse, and we’ve got a light manufacturing facility still in Syracuse and a large manufacturing facility in Phoenix. 

Okay, and Arrow’s based in Denver, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: You got it.

So when I look at the Seneca website, I see that you guys are into broadcast surveillance and digital signage being the key solution you talk about. What percentage roughly, I don’t need the exact number of the work that Seneca does is around signage?

Kevin Cosbey: It’s about 50%. 

Oh, okay, so that’s a big part of your business. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yep, absolutely. 

And how has that shifted through the years? 

Kevin Cosbey: When we first started getting into, what I like to consider niche computing, we were really that digital signage OEM focused company. And then through the years, through those 10 or so years we’ve really focused and dialed into niche computing, that created the new division of the security group. And they’ve been growing through the years as well. 

So we used to be like a hundred percent-ish, on the niche computing focus in digital signage and over the years, security and surveillance has grown substantially. 

Okay. And with signage itself, I’ve been doing this for 20 plus years now, and when I got into it and for the first many years, it was all about what kind of PC to use and that’s what people used and the debates were around do I use Windows or do I use Linux? And the PCs are being marketed and sold as much on form factor and processing power as really anything else, and a lot has changed since then. And I’m curious how it is with the business in that, you know you talked about a niche, how do you make the argument now of using a PC versus using a system on chip smart display versus using a set top box or an HDMI stick, whatever it may be. 

Who’s still using PCs, and am I wrong in thinking it’s a niche and It’s used more than I think? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. Glad you asked it. So it’s a lot to unpack with that question cause you know, similar to you, I’ve been in space for 15 years. I’ve seen a lot of interesting changes in the industry as a whole, way back when everything was PC, and it’s not to say we were just thinking the industry is going to stay running Intel based platforms forever. We saw that higher performance chip sets are coming out from different chip set manufacturers and here we are today with a variety of capable chipsets that can produce and run 1080p or 4k content on a display.

There’s a lot of differences in our industry however, where not everyone just needs to have a 1080p fullscreen content running 365 days a year. There’s more to it, there’s more stuff that’s happening at the edge today than there was 10 years ago and that’s what we’re keeping up with.

Now, I do want to back up a little bit though and say the PC used to be pretty much the media player way back, and now we’re seeing ourselves and I use this analogy a lot. I don’t mean it that we were the best out there, but we were like the iPhone. We were the first to market as a media player. And then you started to see Android phones and you started to see all these other bits and pieces. Now, the nice thing is all of these other bits and pieces that are getting added to the marketplace, they validate our industry as a whole. So when we have SOC out there that is grabbing market share and when we have other purpose built devices that are grabbing market share, it’s increasing our entire industry value. 

So yeah, we don’t have a hundred percent of the pie anymore, but as that pie expands, we continue to have significant market share and that’s really what we’re after. We’re not going after some folks that may consider SOC to be perfect for what they need and ironically, actually many instances where SOC is running, we’re actually the primary media player and SOC is used as the redundancy, which I love that partnership. That’s a really good useful way to have technology ensuring redundancy in high impact environments and really important environments.

Yeah, I’ve heard that in a few cases for kind of mission-critical displays like Airport displays and so on where the smart side of the display is the fail over but the big video wall or whatever is handled by a much beefier industrial grade box. 

Kevin Cosbey: Yup. And then just another aspect of your space, despite the entrance of other folks in the industry that are producing media player type solutions or media streaming devices, year over year we’ve had consistent growth.

There’s a lot of massive enterprise networks out there that will usually only consider using a Wintel based platform and that’s just based on the way their corporate structure works, the way their staff works, the way their entire organization functions on a global perspective. 

And in a lot of those cases, when you have an IT team with a bunch of Dr. Nos who only say no, we only use a PC or whatever, are they not also quite often saying, and we only use Lenovo, or we only use this brand name or that brand name, there are our kind of base contractor vendor for PCs? 

Kevin Cosbey: Great question. And historically, prior to Seneca being part of that Arrow family, we used to just have the Seneca stuff, and now that we’re part of the Arrow family, we are an HP OEM, Lenovo OEM, Dell OEM. So we can still wrap all of the goodness of Seneca, which is, building systems specifically for an enterprise level opportunity and adding all of the functionality to that device. So when someone hits that power button, it runs the exact experience they want it to run. So reducing that setup time significantly at the end user destination. 

Yeah. Let’s talk about that. I’ve been out to the Seneca facility in Syracuse a couple of times when I used to live much closer than I do now and that was one of the big things is when you’re buying your PCs, your media players, whatever you want to call them servers. It’s not like buying something off the shelf at a Best Buy or at a big box from a computer manufacturer. It’s commercial or industrial grade. There’s a lot more going on.

Can you lay out what you guys do that would differentiate it from a manufacturer that’s not going out to thousands of units a day? 

Kevin Cosbey: Absolutely. So you’ve just hit on one major key point is that we’re not producing thousands of devices and then figuring out how to sell it. We have two major channels, two major go to market strategies.

One is our OEM space and we are an OEM equipment manufacturer, or contract manufacturer for a lot of software companies out there that want absolutely nothing to do with hardware. So we bear that burden on their behalf. We grab their IP, their brand, their software, and we build it into our systems, our reference design systems, and we manage logistics. We manage just in time inventory so they can focus on software. We focus on hardware and that end user/end customer gets a device, a purpose-built device that is branded as that experience now. 

I was just going to say, I remember several years ago when Intel came up with its Nuc which was a nice little tiny box, but it looked very much like a consumer grade plastic box that would be perfectly fine on a credenza in a home or something like that. But then Seneca came out with its own version of the Nuc and it was the same reference design, but it was industrial grade. It was fabulous. It was made for business use, it was ruggedized to actually work out in the field for more than a week or something.

Is that kind of how you guys approach this, in that ”we do computing, but this is thought through in terms of what the use cases are”? 

Kevin Cosbey: That’s exactly right. You sold it better than I could have Dave. But yeah, that’s exactly right. We’ve become, over the few decades that we focused on niche computing, experts at taking off the shelf technology and designing it in a very purpose-built manner. So yes, Intel is a great partner of ours. We use a lot of their technology in a lot of our stuff, but we’ve recognized that Intel is for mass consumption on a lot of their platforms and digital signage isn’t really looking for just a mass consumption solution. They’re looking for something that’s a little bit taken a step further and thermal design is important. Power supply embedded in the system is important. Output is important from an HDMI perspective or display port, whatever that case is. And that’s the stuff we take from the Intel board itself and we’ll grab USB hatters off of it to increase the IO on our chassis. We’ll do all these creative things to take what exists from a global consumption perspective and take it to that next level to ensure it’s perfect for what the industry needs, not just that customer/ 

The rise of things like audience measurement technologies, computer vision, that sort of thing and demand for more computing at the edge of a network, at the device that may be pushing content to the screen but that device is also being asked to do computer vision tasks of some kind and so on, has that helped the sales effort as well, in terms of you can maybe do that with a smart display or maybe possibly, probably not with a set top box kind of device, but you can buy a small form factor, industrial grade PC that you can tool up with on i5 or an i7 or whatever and it can do multiple things off of the same unit? 

Kevin Cosbey: Spot on again, Dave, you’re crushing it out there on the hardware side. Exactly. To your point, we’re starting to see and have really for the past few years that there’s a shift from our perspective where not everything has to be computed in the cloud and a lot of stuff needs to happen at the edge, and as that edge becomes more in demand from a computing perspective, from a headroom perspective and future-proofing perspective, that’s where we’re starting to see folks that used to be on an i3 actually start looking at an i5 and i7, and of course you’ve got Moore’s law, right? Where the computing capabilities at the edge just become more powerful as the years in technologies increase.

So even some folks that we were able to get away with, if they’re doing 4k at the edge and running some other computer, maybe they used to be on an i5 and now five years later, we’re actually seeing that to keep up with that same demand an i3 is going to be appropriate. So it’s both ends of the spectrum.

And then as you get into the larger stuff where it’s like a Time square video wall, that’s our hardware throughout the partner, Diversified. And that was built specifically with really crazy computers in mind and crazy videos in mind. And that’s very, purpose-built high compute power is required for that type of solution.

Yeah. You guys have servers that drive any number of very large seriously large pixel displays, right? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, like the Orlando airport that is like a mile or so of continuous displays that is using our hardware for hardware synchronization and hardware synchronization, again, getting that compute down to the edge instead of constantly relying on the cloud, you’re not going to experience latency. You’re not going to experience any major issues at the edge. It is as full-proof as it can possibly get. 

And at the edge, the demand, and really the rise of dynamic signage, this idea that what you’re gonna see is based on what other business systems are telling you is that sort of decisioning that maybe you could do it in the cloud, but really it needs to be at the edge at the individual devices too, to work best? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, and just having that latency no longer a concern, so if you’re doing drive through type menu boarding solution, and you want to do as much analytics as you possibly can to design content around certain environmental information, it’s best to keep that computing at the edge, because there will be no latency going up to the cloud computing and then coming back down to the device.

So having those decisions made at the edge is far more powerful than having to send everything up to the cloud. The same reason that, a Tesla car, the amount of computing that is done inside of the car is substantially more than probably people think. 

So you guys have started marketing something called Maestro, can you tell me what that is and where that came from?

Kevin Cosbey:  Yeah, absolutely. So we recognized that out of our OEM group, a lot of the OEM folks have started to sell to a broader group of people, the channel. And over the years we started seeing that, all right, now we have these five-six media players, and we’ve got these 28 software partners, and I’m not going to do the competition here, but it comes up with a ridiculous amount of combinations of hardware to software. 

And now we’ve got to have all of our partners telling us, “Hey, Kevin, I really want to have an HDN with a BroadSign app”. Okay, now we’ve got to put in that information and then we build to order and send that out.

Instead of having all of these different SKUs and part numbers in a very complex and convoluted way, we grabbed all of our software partners. So that’s Broadsign, Navori, SignageLive, Appspace, Ping HD, Acquire Digital, and then on the analytics side, we’ve got Ad Mobilize, Visibility and we’ve bundled them into a single platform called Maestro. And that comes on all of our media players as a simple, easy to use out of box software tool. So it just helps people automatically optimize the operating system for a digital signage environment. The next step is you just click on BroadSign, for example, if that’s your CMS, it auto installs all of the BroadSign programs that are required to run on that system.

It changes anything that BroadSign needs to the operating system. So everything is taken care of. And then of course, if you want to add Ad Mobilize to that platform, you click on add, Ad Mobilize, it installs it, and now you have a very simple point and click setup process and a BroadSign and Ad Mobilize player right out of the box.

And what led to that? 

Kevin Cosbey: It really was just mostly confusion. We had a database of all of these part numbers, all of this stuff, and we realized we need to get everything together in an effort to be more aggressive in our channel space. So we’ve got a lot of really good channel customers, but we need to make their install process as easy as we could possibly make it, reducing their time at the install. So we’ve partnered up with the same folks that they’re partnered up with to make their lives as easy as we could possibly make it. 

So one of the features and benefits, I’m just looking at the webpage here is you talk about saving hundreds of keystrokes. How is that? Just because of all the monkey business to get multiple systems working? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. So you’ve got Microsoft Windows, which is a wonderful operating system. I can’t say anything negative about it. But ultimately it’s built for mass consumption. So again, how do we take something that’s built for the entire world to use from an operating system level and make it perfect for signage?

Usually when somebody gets a media player that’s running on a Windows environment, they’ve got to go through and they’ve got to do certain things to the operating system. They’ve got to do this to the graphics card, through the drivers. They’ve got to do this and X, Y, and Z. Well, instead of having the installer do those things to suppress errors, so you’re not going to have errors on that top layer of content, which I’m sure we’ve all seen out, out in the wild. 

This Maestro platform that the minute you boot it up, when it goes into the operating system, it auto goes through all of this stuff so that technician doesn’t have to do anything. And then it goes through a reboot when it pops up that second time, then you’re installing BroadSign. Broad sign has certain things that need to be done, certain hooks into the operating system that need to be done with a mouse and keyboard. We’ve just done it by just clicking BroadSign and installing it goes through that whole process. So we’ve scripted the whole process. So yeah, maybe a hundred clicks isn’t the same for installing Ping HD or it’s only 50 clicks for BroadSign, but it hovers around a hundred clicks that we’ve actually gone through the setup and jotted down how many clicks we’re saving folks on average.

So in essence it’s removing what can be a giant pain in the ass? 

Kevin Cosbey: That’s it, yeah. We’ll change that to the marketing slogan. (Laughter) 

There’s something to be said sometimes for plain language. 

What’s been the response from your ecosystem? 

Kevin Cosbey: Really happy. It’s been this thing in my head for a while and there’s risk involved when you’re doing it. Paradigm shift within the organization and our engineering group got behind it, all of these folks got behind it into this. How do we make the channel so much easier? And we’ve gotten incredible feedback from our partners that we didn’t think we were going to get. And it’s just been like, I don’t know, heartwarming a bit that we’re hearing such good feedback, like “You guys have thought of everything.” Wow. All right. That’s pretty cool. That’s good to hear. It’s been really good. 

And was that all done in house or did you have to find a third party to do some of this stuff? Because you’re mostly gear guys and not software guys.

Kevin Cosbey: We’re mostly speeds and feeds dudes, but ultimately we’ve got pretty good software engineering prowess when it comes to an operating system level stuff.

We’ve been building operating systems because we build hardware. We’ve been doing it for decades. Now,  if someone said, “Hey, Kevin, can you build me a CMS?” No, that’s not our game. That’s not our software expertise, but absolutely OS level stuff, that’s our area of expertise.

Before I hit the start button here, we were also talking about something that was introduced earlier and you said it’s going to spin up a lot more in 2021 called X-Connect?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve had a platform called X-Connect in our security and surveillance group for about five years, so it’s been developed as a very mature platform and it allows people to, from a simple dashboard, see all of their network, video recorders, right in the security and surveillance group. And it would allow them to see all their IP cameras. So from one dashboard, they can see everything and they can manage those devices.

Of course, that bright light went off in our group saying, “Hey, guys we see a pretty big need for this in the digital signage world.” That the difference is now that instead of it residing on a massive beefy high performance server, we needed to figure out how we take all of that incredible goodness in seeing what’s going on in the server environment and bring it down to an itty bitty little media player that is sometimes running a little Intel Celeron chips up, and of course we can’t impact content. Content is the number one thing that has to be running on these devices and if we have any impact on that, then we’re just going against the grain. 

So it took the engineering group quite a while, but they were able to successfully deploy this X-Connect platform, which allows monitoring and management and the management is the big key function here. Anybody can send out a monitoring platform to see green lights and red lights. But if you want to actually reduce your truck rolls, you’ve gotta be able to remotely manage these devices. So what this system allows us to do is it sends out remote commands down to devices. Of course, simple reboot commands, that’s all table stakes, but now we’re at a level where I’ll use an example, we’ve got a customer where they were complaining that out in the wild, it was in a retail environment for whatever reason, people were somehow bumping into the power button and it would somehow get that graceful reboot going well.

We went to the engineering group and with the customer working with us, they were like, “can’t we just get rid of the power button?” Yeah, technically we could. So through the X-Connect platform, thousands of devices out in the field didn’t require a truck roll and remotely, we disabled the power button on the system. So now technically the only way to reboot it is remotely through our system, which our partner and managed service provider is providing all those services. So a really cool application.

 Yeah. I get a sense, through the years, when it comes to truck rolls, there are times when something catastrophic has happened and you absolutely need a technician there, but there’s one hell of a lot of truck rolls that are just about a cable that’s come loose or power button turned off or something, right?

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, absolutely. I was just on a call before chatting with you, Dave, where one of the big topics of that discussion was it’s the unknowns that are going to kill a network and truck rolls are the big unknown. So if we can mitigate that and bring it down to a manageable level where it can be understood almost as how many truck rolls do you think are going to happen for a network. And then on the back end, a managed service provider or an integrator or whoever it is on the X-Connect platform can resolve stuff remotely and allows organizations to scale their network a lot faster than they otherwise would.

So with your CMS partners, a lot of those guys, like the Novari’s and so on, they have device management of some kind that’s built into their software front end. Is what you bring with X-Connect supplementary or is there an API, does it replace what they have, how does all that work? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, it’s intended to be the single pane of glass for an organization, and it does have an open API framework. The nice thing about the X-Connect platform is if organizations need to ingest other information, then we can ingest that information into X-Connect.

So for example, Novari, they’ve got a great platform that can see a lot of what’s going on in the device. But because we’re the hardware manufacturer, we can just see more of the technology layer of the technology stack. So in addition to what’s going on with Novari, we can potentially ingest information from an IP camera, we can ingest information through HDMI CEC, we can ingest information through an SOC platform like magic info. So the idea here is that X-Connect has the capability of becoming that single pane of glass, to manage and monitor, not just the immediate player, but the entire stack. 

This is a little bit like what BrightSign is doing in terms of they’ve got boxes and then they’ve got a device management platform as well that kind of removes the need for the CMS provider or the solutions provider to develop their own thing. Is it a bit like that? 

Kevin Cosbey: I mean in the rudimentary sense of monitoring and managing, yes.

In the higher level, more in depth perspective, our design and I’m no expert on the BrightSign platform, but our design is not very proprietary in that it is an open API framework and we can add on a host of other devices, if you want to add on perhaps a Lenovo device, no problem. HP devices, no issue, Dell devices, all good. So it’s a little bit more open and you can manage an entire network of stuff and not just to the Seneca media player. So we’re looking to go after, how do we help manage the entire infrastructure? Not just one piece of the puzzle. 

And it doesn’t have to be x86 based? 

Kevin Cosbey: Written out, x86 based for basically monitoring the device itself, but then the device itself becomes its own gateway and it allows to see other stuff on that same network. 

Which is why you could see a Samsung smart display for instance. 

I’m curious, are you seeing other kinds of companies that are digital signage pure play companies or really even AV integrators or like that, just different kinds of organizations. I’m thinking like access control companies and other ones that in the past year have seen the need to be able to push information to larger screens. Are you starting to see non-traditional players come at you?

Kevin Cosbey: Honestly on the PC side of the house, not really, no. We’re seeing a little bit more where our traditional competition from 10 years ago is not consistently our competition as much as new entrants have become a competition. 

By new entrants, you mean like the smart display and set top boxes and so on? 

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah, exactly. But from a traditional x86 based system Wintel based platforms and this is just a gut reaction based on the industry, Seneca has focused so heavily in the digital signage space that I believe we’ve become strong leaders in the PC based digital signage media play world.

Yeah, certainly there’s three or four other companies that are selling into the same ecosystem, but in their case, it usually seems to be, “and we also do digital signage or this is among the things that we do” versus you guys, you’re saying it’s 50% of your business and you’ve got full-time people who that’s all they do

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. We’ve got an engineering group that’s what they’ve been doing for 10 plus years. 

All right. So what might we see from Seneca/Arrow in the context of signage in the next 12 months? 

Kevin Cosbey: I’d say you’re going to see a lot of us, virtually of course, this year we’re really excited about the Maestro platform and the X-Connect platform.

It puts us into a very serious solution offering for digital signage, just as we’ve been talking through this and you just mentioned a lot of folks have historically provided a small PC and we’ve done that for years. But now we’re taking that next level. We always took that next level from a hardware side to making it a little bit more purpose-built and now we’re starting to really dissect the whole process.

So we’re dissecting what our channel folks are doing, what are integrators doing, what do managed service providers do, what is the digital out of home space doing and how do we solve some of those industry problems? With technology and then of course, we’ve got a big Arrow behind us that we’re happy to be a part of.

So we offer Arrow Credit and financing to support really massive projects or projects that are just $10,000. We’ve gotten very creative in grabbing some of those Arrow pieces that historically we didn’t have the capability of offering because of size. 

Yeah. I assume that if you had a very happy moment where you had an end user come to you and say “really interested in this, but here’s the deal I need 40,000 units by the start of June” Old Seneca would probably say no versus now, you could actually say and I don’t know if you could do that kind of number, but you could do a big number without people having a heart attack.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah. I’ll still fall out of my chair, but I’ll get back in the chair pretty quickly, whereas before I’d be left on the ground.

But you’d be lying on the ground with a smile on your face.

Kevin Cosbey: Yeah and the other cool thing with Arrow capital too, is we’ve partnered with our software partners. So we support the project with that end customer. So if it’s, I don’t know, Staples that wants to do a 2000 unit deployment, we will support the entire financial burden of that project and then let’s say a software company, X is working it with us.

Arrow capital will pay that software company for those three years of contracted services on day one. So now we’ve got a solution that allows our partnerships to be a little bit more financially stable as well. 

All right. Kevin, thank you for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Cosbey: Thank you, Dave. Happy new year and really looking forward to seeing you and everybody in the industry one day, maybe this year. 

Yeah, one day. I think it might not be until the fall, but fingers crossed. 

Kevin Cosbey: Fingers crossed, yeah. 

All right. Stay safe. 

Kevin Cosbey: Thanks Dave. You do the same.