Matthew Rubin and the other analysts at the UK-based research firm Futuresource Consulting spend much of their time looking at the electronics industry – both the consumer and commercial sides.
Rubin is a senior analyst with the firm and puts a lot of his working focus on the pro AV and digital signage market. His point of view is behind research reports that look at what is happening in the marketplace, and also forecasts what is expected to happen in the coming months and years.
We had a great chat talking about where signage and pro AV are at, a year into the pandemic and a year into the brakes being slammed on a lot of planned work.
We get into many things, including the states of direct view LED and LCD, and we also talk broadly about how businesses are doing, and when a turnaround is expected.
Matthew, thank you for joining me. Can you explain what Futuresource is all about and your methodology to some degree? Like, how do you guys do your research?
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, of course, so first of all it’s best to explain that I’m a Senior Analyst at Futuresource covering the professional displays categories. So that’s looking at LED, projection, a lot of work early on LCD and then obviously interactive now, and Futuresource tracks the whole technological scene. I work on the B2B side so very much within displays, but we have a team that focuses on the education sector and we do a lot of work on professional audio as well.
But we have a B2C side, so really focusing on the whole range of consumer electronics but also, entertainment and how people are engaging with that across the spectrum and I think it’s all really intertwined. So it gives us this really great opportunity to see the whole spectrum across the B2C and the B2B landscape. But yeah, so we, in terms of methodology, it depends on the product category, but on the display side, is a really good example: we’ve really perfected and spent a lot of time developing, over about two decades, particularly on projection, tracking service and that’s really a vendor-led service where we get direct data feeds from about 90% plus of the spectrum of all the vendors, and they give us their volumes, down to a module level and we correlate that, really dig into some deep analysis around it and provide really detailed data back to everyone in the ecosystem, not just the vendors but all throughout the supply chain.
So that can be used as tracking very down into specific segmentation levels but also trend analysis, really what’s driving the market. We also do a lot of forecasting, so looking out to about five years, we’ve got to understand what’s happening in the industry, where it’s going and you achieve that, not just by speaking to the vendors, right through the ecosystem, including end-users. We really need to understand who is using the technology and what they’re using it for and what we think they’re going to use it for in the future as well, which is really vital.
That’s one of our best-developed services and we have that across display categories, but we also do a lot of consulting work as well. A lot of our clients come to us and ask for us to really find out something very particular and an answer to that and that utilizes a lot of our existing data, but we also have great connections across the B2B side technology landscape. So we’re able to get so much knowledge together from our network, from our data, and our own knowledge from working in the industry for a couple of decades now. So we’re able to offer a very broad spectrum of services there.
It must take quite a bit of work to win the trust of the different manufacturers, because you’re, as you described, asking them to send a data feed of sales volumes and everything else, so you must have some pretty significant NDAs or other kinds of agreements.
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a testament really to the way that Futuresource has been around for quite a while and the kind of level of trust and accuracy we’ve managed to maintain, like I said before, over a couple of decades.
The projector service, I think is our oldest, about 20 years and it’s so deeply ingrained in so many of our partners now that it’s really a key part of the process and actually, we’re trying to replicate that now with an LED tracking service, which is so much in demand and I know a topic you spend a lot of time looking at as well. But it’s a different world and it’s speaking to a completely different ecosystem, especially in China.
So we’re seeing again from having to build that trust and from the ground up there, and it’s a slow process and absolutely it’s something you can’t rush.
Yeah. It must be particularly hard with Chinese companies just because of the way they operate and the government funding and behind a lot of them.
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, generally speaking, they’re not used to that kind of methodology in terms of sharing that level of data with third parties effectively. Some have experience with it, especially those that already have operations or have purchased foreign businesses that use that kind of methodology and so have shared that around their businesses and up to the parent company. That helps certainly a lot, but generally speaking, yeah, it’s certainly more difficult than internationally outside of China.
Yeah. So a company like Leyard that bought Planar, they would have been exposed to how all this works and be perhaps a little more comfortable with it.
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the big LED vendors from China have, as I said, made a few purchases recently and I think they’re still in that process of sharing those kinds of methodologies and that kind of data throughout the company, but it’s happening quite quickly. I think they are becoming much more comfortable with that level of sharing and confidence, particularly in a brand like a Futuresource, where we have that relationship elsewhere, but it needs to be developed with them.
How much of a problem, if it’s a problem at all, are all of the full research companies coming out of somewhere in Pune, India primarily who clog up the news releases every day with forecasts for digital signage that appears to be pretty much nonsensical. Do you compete with them or is that stuff just out there and it grabs the flotsam?
Matthew Rubin: It’s hard to say, isn’t it? I think so much of the research industry is built around trust and brands, as in research brands that you’re comfortable with and you’re aware of, and those are the ones you really end up paying a lot of attention to.
I think it’s something that’s similar to what you’ll get across the internet. There’s massive information out there and if you already know your stuff, you’ll go straight to certain sources and you’re a great example. You will filter out the kind of information that you’re getting and what you’re willing to share with your readers and your listeners, and I think it’s the same across the spectrum, I think of course, you are going to get quite a lot of information out there from any research house that can churn out content, but you pay attention to maybe a much smaller percentage of that.
That might actually know the industry?
Matthew Rubin: Yeah. Yeah. That certainly helps, doesn’t it?
What a concept.
So in terms of the industry, one of the reports that you guys put out in the last three, four months, maybe more recent than that even, was megatrends in the context of digital signage and pro-AV, what’s happening out there?
Matthew Rubin: I think. First of all, you’ve got to really recap what’s happened in 2020, and you’ve got to recognize the difficulties, I think, live events in particular and digital signage faced. Without these kinds of live events driving the market, you have this real dip in demand, right? And it’s put a lot of businesses in a very difficult position and similarly, with digital signage, why will end-users or advertising companies, why will you invest in these kinds of displays that really have been growing up until 2020, these eye-catching LEDs or high brightness projection, really impressive displays that you see in big cities around the world.
Why are you going to invest in that when you simply don’t have the eyeballs on the screen, on the high street? You’re not going to invest in that? 2020 as a whole, mostly speaking outside of China and outside of APAC has been a massive struggle and undoubted struggle and you don’t have the basic drivers behind creating some real investment there undoubtedly but saying that there have actually been some really interesting and cool positive stories out there. An area that we track very closely, slightly in the left-field of what we’re talking about is interactive displays and we actually have another tracking service on that here at Futuresource, but there has been a huge amount of demand for that kind of technology, particularly in the education vertical, where there’s been such a drive to invest in, their need to help children learn remotely in a hybrid fashion, more interactively.
So many of them have laptops in schools and there’s a huge drive behind investing in that and in some cases, it’s a realization of how far behind certain countries are progressing on the technology side. A great example of that is actually in Germany and there’s a lot of investment behind digital pockets there and there’s a great hope that will speed things up very quickly. But as a general concept, while most of the display industry has been in decline, that’s actually been growing very strongly in China and outside of China. So that’s a real positive story and even within the projection, an area that is probably on a bit of a long-term decline slowly and really struggled during 2020, but even within there, there are pockets like ultra-mobile projectors.
And that’s partly driven obviously by consumers sitting at home and wanting that cinema experience. But also people wanting mobile office spaces, really looking ahead how are people going to use the office space? What kind of displays do they need in them? How much space you need between employees. It’s really a question. This can be very difficult to answer until we know a lot more about the virus and the antiviruses and how that looks going forward. But mobile projectors are a cheap and easy way to have that kind of flexibility there.
But that’s us thinking more about what has happened and moving forward. I think a really interesting theme that we’re trying to build upon is this idea behind merged displays and by that, we don’t mean literally merging displays into one device, but situations, applications where you want to utilize LED, LCD and projection. I think a really great example of that is within the retail vertical. Again, another area that’s really struggled during 2020 without people on the high street typically and in Europe and the US. But again, there’s going to be this huge need to encourage shoppers back out onto the high street and that is around this idea of maybe every store, instead of having hundreds, thousands of stores do cover the broadest area, you’re moving to an idea where almost every store is a flagship store. That means fewer stores, admittedly and that obviously is a necessity due to the high growth of online shopping anyways. It’s pretty much an unsustainable business plan in the long term. But when you start thinking about every store becoming this flagship store, you have a great need to really integrate displays and audio as well within that in some cases, but really invest in creating this experiential shopping experience.
So it’s not just a basic transaction, but it’s an opportunity to really build on the brand and brand awareness and really draw people back out of their homes, which is something that is really going to be an area of retailers need to focus on.
Yeah, certainly there’ve been all kinds of forecasts and prognostications that the way that consumers shop has been changed forever. They’ve developed new habits like buy online/pick up in-store, buy online/do curbside pickup, all those sorts of things, but we’re still at a time when there’s lots of talk about that, as opposed to we’re still in the pandemic, so we don’t really know yet how consumers are going to behave after all this has done, will they just go back to how they did things before, or are the forecast right that this is how people are going to shop now. They want to just roll up and have somebody bring what they bought out to their car and hand it over.
Matthew Rubin: You’re right, there is a consensus that these things are here to stay. Online shopping is going to dominate to a much greater extent than it was before.
And in all honesty, it’s hard to say. That is obviously based on the fact that was an existing trend moving pretty much in one direction. It’s pretty easy enough to assume that is going to therefore be ingrained more heavily in the way that consumers act. But another way, the way that we look at this and try to understand where things are heading is that you can pretty much put most countries on a chart in terms of how far online shopping penetration has already reached before this, obviously 2020 is a bit of a misnomer, but how far that had already reached in terms of multi-channel click and collect or all of these things you mentioned that the kind of modern way of shopping and actually the UK is funny enough, one of the most advanced in that area and it’s pretty easy to assume that other countries, as they are clearly going on that similar trajectory, you can almost plot where they are more likely it ended up.
There are some slight variances around that, of course, in terms of literally just geography what’s possible in, in more dense cities and countries compared to a place like the US where you have these very high pockets of populations and then fast spread out areas. But even then you get this whole area of drones flying products around, which isn’t possible in much of the UK.
But really I think you can pretty much plot a lot of countries along this line. So you can see the future or at least the near future for a great many of them and certainly here in the UK, it was already very heavily ingrained: online shopping, as I said, click and collect multichannel and the way that people interact with retailer is far beyond that idea of just seeing an advert, maybe on TV, and just going in-store. There are a great many touchpoints and I think part of that and the way that the thinking is evolving is that stores are a hugely important part of that but not so simple in terms of just going there to buy something. It’s something, almost part of a marketing budget where there’s a great opportunity to invest in the brand, in helping people remember that brand and what it stands for and technology plays a huge role in building that.
How closely do B2B and B2C trends kind of correlate? In other words, if we’re seeing a big spike with purchases of 4K LCD TVs, does that trend seem to track as well on the B2B side for commercial displays?
Matthew Rubin: I think it inevitably does, but for different reasons, and that really ends up just being that the manufacturers put a lot of investment behind the latest and greatest to be that 4K and even that, it’s hard to argue has been pulled literally by consumers, it’s mostly been pushed by manufacturers. But because so much investment goes into the production line, it makes so much sense to move everything over and move everything in that way B2B, maybe where you would only need 1080p and realistically that is, is all you’d ever need. It still makes financial sense to move almost all production over if not all to 4K.
So it does have an absolutely direct effect on it. Similarly, with projection, you get some similar trends and desires around laser technology and much higher brightness that the consumers are demanding and that’s actually really helped on the B2B side and the wider applications you can use there and actually, that flows backward and forwards, particularly on the projection side, but in terms of display panels, I think it’s really just almost, I don’t want to say forced on B2B, but it just makes efficient sense to follow the B2C side.
Yeah. I was curious about that. If. Product development is by and large driven by the B2C side just because of volume and everything else. I have heard, I haven’t had this confirmed, but heard that much of the Genesis of smart commercial displays, the ones with embedded systems on chips had to do with just having a whole bunch of available SOC processors and what are we going to do with them, “let’s make commercial displays smart displays.”
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, I’m not sure about that one in particular. But, I suppose it’s one of those very particular to LCD. If you look at LED and what’s going on there, that’s another one to closely watch in terms of what is really driving it. You have the likes of Samsung who are a very consumer or they do a huge amount of business on the B2B side, but they’re hugely focused on consumers as well and they see a huge future for microLED in the living room and the investment that they’re pouring in there will absolutely flow and help the B2B side and what they’re going to do there and what they’re capable of because there are still big leaps and bounds to be made in manufacturing processes.
So that’s a much earlier stage, but possibly a much clearer example of how the B2B and B2C sides interact and it all comes down to investment, doesn’t it? And who’s drawing the investment, is it the masses of consumers and will they demand enough of that product versus commercial entities?
Where are we in terms of the shift from LCD to LED? You had companies talking about this being something that was going to happen over five years or so that LCD video walls would go away replaced by LED video walls, but I keep hearing the price delta is still pretty substantial between LED and LCD.
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, you are right. A thing we like to talk about a lot is moving towards price parity but in a literal sense, it doesn’t really mean that they are going to reach the exact same price or at least not in the near term. It’s more than in terms of consideration for a business, it’s within the realms of possibility to consider LED instead of LCD in many years. Whereas before the price of LED was way too much and way out there and there are some other considerations as well around your ability which has generally been solved now, but the price Delta was huge. Whereas now we are actually entering phases where LED can be chosen above LCD and it makes business sense and sometimes that’s to do with the longevity of the device. It can be to do with the flexibility that LED offers that LCD might not be able to, but absolutely we’re certainly not at the point where they are, and I just don’t expect it in the next year or two for sure, where one is exactly comparable in terms of price to the other. But again, it also depends on what you’re doing with it. As I mentioned, if you really want a custom display, LEDs are your only choice. If it’s a very bespoke setting, you could go down the route of projectors, but that has its own difficulties.
And equally, as you scale up to very large displays, it’s about willingness to accept a bezel maybe if you’re building up a big LCD display, which you wouldn’t have on LED and you don’t have the same exponential cost as you go up in size there, there are huge differences and even then moving on from there, when you have to think about geographically, it’s simply a much cheaper product in China because there’s just so much of the supply chain there and a lot of government support behind manufacturing. So yeah, it’s an even easier choice in China, which is really well. We’re seeing a huge uptake in LED often or the expense of LCD.
Is the sense in the industry, in the display industry that LED will largely shift apart from outdoors stuff from the conventional manufacturing, the SMD surface mounted devices to microLEDor perhaps miniLED, but more likely microLED, is that where it’s going?
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, I think it’s inevitable that this is where the money is flowing into microLED and really that’s what everyone wants and it’s a desire at least to make it compete more effectively with LCD in terms of the density and just image quality, which is really impressive now.
But this is also the idea behind mass transfer technology and that’s really where we’re expecting to see a bigger flip in terms of pricing of technology of LED and when it really becomes feasible on a mass scale as compared to LCD and that is across consumers as well as B2B.
But there are still a few of these leaps that need to be made and realistically not expected in the next two or three years. You reach out to vendors and you hear sometimes quite wildly different expectations in terms of timelines in terms of what’s going on there. So I think there are still some technological leaps that need to be made in terms of processes and manufacturing. But the end goal is the same, really it’s almost matching LCD’s curve and maturity, but it is a bit more premature at that stage.
So I gather the big challenges are still getting the manufacturing times down using techniques like mass transferring all the LED dye, but directly tied to that is raising the quality controls level so that the number of flaws, when you mass transfer those LED dye is absolutely minimized otherwise what they call the yield becomes a problem, right?
Matthew Rubin: Yeah, and I think the yield and a lot of issues around just generally durability around LED was a theme and an issue over the last few years, but very much less so now. From what we understand, I mean, it’s a moving scale, isn’t it? It’s much better than it was, but it’s still obviously room to go. But a lot of that investment is really trying to build up this next generation of plants and how they manufacture LED displays and I think that yields have been progressively improving at such a rate that is not as much of a priority as it perhaps was in the last few years.
The other megatrend that was identified by Futuresource, well one of them anyway, had to do with AV over IP. What does that all encompass?
Matthew Rubin: Well, it’s not my personal field that I spend a huge amount of time on. We have a team that’s literally dedicated to AV over IP and the benefits that it brings in a range of spectrums, but it’s still quite a field that’s in early development, I suppose. In some cases, again, it’s a field of educating the users around the benefits of using AV over IP and a whole range of fields and applications.
And I think, and again, it’s not an area that I focus on too much. But it’s certainly an area of a lot of growth opportunities but one of the barriers is just understanding the technology and understanding the leap forward, almost in how you transfer that data.
We, of course, can’t really envision when things get back to normal because of vaccine rates and variants and everything else, but I’ve spoken with a number of companies that are saying, “We’re starting to see things turn, we’re expecting by Q2 or maybe Q3 business will get back to what we would perceive to be normal.”
At a macro level, understanding that everything is in flux, does Futuresource have a point of view as to when the digital signage and AV industry will start to come back to normal?
Matthew Rubin: Again people like the term, what is the new normal? And we’re all hoping it goes back to at least something that we understand and resembles from previous experiences and like I said, it’s easy to say things at a macro level, but I think even again, it goes back to this idea of geographically there are hugely different experiences of what’s happened with COVID in Asia and China, compared to the US and the UK is another example that is hit very hard.
And what’s interesting is actually, we’ve just finished our Q4 2020 data submissions in processing there and there are some bright spots and we’re already seeing a relatively strong LCD market in particular and as I said before, a lot of that is propped up by interactive. It’s not digital signage, so we say that’s certainly still really struggling and it’s all tied around this idea of when can people go out in groups and do the things that they used to do and generally speaking, we think around the middle of the year, we should start seeing a lot more activity around that. But again, all of that ties back to every country is able to get the vaccine out at different rates.
In the UK, it looks like we’re pretty much ahead of the curve, which makes it a nice change. So it’s easy to say around here, the second half of the year, we would expect a very much improved market for digital signage and the AV market and that also encompasses events that we expect and hope to be able to go ahead, but again, take a step back though it’s unlikely to be much international travel in particular. That’s really hard to predict, much later we think in 2021 with a lot of red flags countries is how the UK government has termed it, but countries that we don’t expect that travel we allowed until they have reached a certain level of vaccination and that’s going to be true of so many places and without travel, without tourism, without that kind of investment, so much hinges on that as well.
Even with live events as well, how can you expect artists to go from one place to another or sports teams and so it’s all really very much interconnected. So, at a very high macro level, absolutely middle of the year, we would start to see some real positivity there. But in terms of really hitting recovery levels, we’re probably talking around Q4 at the earliest to hit some of the real peaks and that’s of course true. We are expecting a really big, notable bounce back in demand. We do think there’s a lot of pent-up demand, a lot of businesses that have kept devices going for longer to avoid that kind of initial investment of refreshing technology and that’s totally understandable. Why would you invest at this point, a very high-risk stage, for many businesses.
But we expect a big flow of investment within certain verticals. Obviously, there are some verticals that are probably going to struggle for the whole of 2021 and it won’t be real until 2022 that you see a real rebound there, but there are a lot of enterprises in a lot of signage areas where we’d expect to see a fair bounce back, particularly in the second half.
All right, Matthew, thank you for spending some time with me. I appreciate it.
Matthew Rubin: Anytime. It’s been a real pleasure and it’s always great to talk about these high-level themes that are going on, and we have so many detailed conversations with so many partners. It’s good to talk about what does that all mean and where is it going? And a timeline like this, it’s all very unpredictable, which makes it more engaging.
All right. Thank you.