Jay Leedy On Sony’s Different Path With Smart Displays And Software Partnerships
June 16, 2021 by Dave Haynes
Sony has been around digital signage for pretty much as long as the industry, but in all my time around this sector I haven’t had a particularly strong sense that the company was really serious about digital signage. Until the last year or so.
First, the company attracted Rich Ventura over from NEC, and Ventura is as well-known, knowledgeable and hyper-connected as they come in this business.
A few months later, Jay Leedy left the huge AV integrator Diversified to join Sony, and while he’s maybe not quite as connected as Rich, he’s still really well known in this sector, and knows his stuff. Locked down for months like most of us, Leedy’s spent his first year with Sony building up relationships with the ecosystem and raising awareness that Sony really, truly is in the digital signage business in a serious way.
In our chat, we cover a bunch of things – most notably Sony’s own approach to so-called smart displays. While Samsung and LG have proprietary operating systems for their smart screens, and their main competitors use Android, Sony uses Android TV. We get into what that means, in terms of benefits like power and features, and a small number of quirks that owe to its being, at its core, a consumer product.
Leedy’s gig, in part, is making the developer system aware that Sony has a “pro mode” for Android TV, and how digital signage software companies that already support Android can add support for Android TV quickly and easily.
We also get into where Leedy is seeing marketplace demand right now, and where the industry is going in terms of emerging technologies.
Mr. Leedy, thanks for joining me. You have, in the past year or so, gone from one company to another. What are you doing at Sony?
Jay Leedy: Hey, Dave. Good to talk to you as well. So when I left Diversified, I had been doing a lot of work in business development for strategic partners, and also working with a lot of the offices globally, driving digital signage solutions through local relationships.
Similar work, as when I moved to Sony. I’m part of an organization that is really part of their factory planning and product roadmap team called HES or Home Entertainment & Sound, which is a funny name for an organization in my focus, which is really exclusively B2B, but it sheds a little light on our strategy and how we’re developing our Bravia product, with a lot of efficiencies in manufacturing and kind of common components from our consumer line, we poured it into a discrete line of Bravia products.
So I do a lot of partnership development, really taking cues from our professional sales organization that Richard Ventura leads, and based on their feedback and voice of customer insights, leverage that into developing solutions or effecting changes to our hardware components that are made to better serve the B2B market, and in cases where we have gaps in capability, build-out partnership ecosystems to serve that. So my focus immediately, since I came on, which has been about eight months, has really been around digital signage and building out a broad partner ecosystem to serve that market.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting because I spoke with Richard when he came over to Sony and talked a little bit about his plans and everything else, and I think it’s fair to say that Sony in the past decade or so, hasn’t been all that present, maybe by design or just circumstance or marketing, I don’t know, in the digital signage sector, but I would say in the past year or so, it seems much more a part of it and not might owe to people like you and Rich and others who are known in the ecosystem and have those deep contacts and everything else.
Has it been work to get the digital signage ecosystem, understanding that, “Hey, Sony is a player on the B2B side, and we are interested in talking to you and we do have products that are very digital signage appropriate”?
Jay Leedy: Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey, and I’ll be honest when I saw Sony at the very last DSE, the same year that LG had decided not to attend. It was a bit of a head-scratcher for me too, I was still at Diversified at the time and had not worked with Sony at all in my capacity there but certainly, with Rich Ventura joining and my coming on, roughly six months after he joined, there’s been a distinct focus and an investment at the headquarters level to go after this market seriously.
We’ve had a Pro Bravia line of products since 2018, but to your earlier point, we have been relatively Invisible to the market so a number of the folks that I reached out to after I joined Sony on the SI and reseller side, comments were, “Where have you guys been? You’ve got a great brand. You’ve got great quality. Everybody knows Sony.” But for whatever reason, we had chosen not to really go aggressively after the B2B market and for a number of years, we were really solely focused on consumers.
But as you know, there’s a huge opportunity in B2B, and coming on and engaging with partners, helping them understand our current strategy, which is really around an Android TV-based system on a chip, that’s been surprisingly and enthusiastically met with a lot of optimism and support in the digital signage partnership community. So I think that’s largely because it’s not proprietary [latform that needs to be developed there, they can use existing development talent that is already familiar with developing for Android and work with us without having to develop a new skill set or onboard new resources.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting because everybody thinks about Samsung as the company that really introduced the idea of “smart signage” with their system on chip displays, going back to 2013 or something. But I pretty strongly believed that Sony actually had a smart TV and a smart digital signage product before Samsung by a year or so, but it was, as we were just talking about not all that heavily marketed and there wasn’t a lot of awareness around it, but Sony has been at this for quite some time.
Jay Leedy: We did have a line that I just learned about actually proceeding with our 2018 launch of Pro Bravia that was more of an ODM approach. So because of that, we didn’t control the entire solution stack. Now that we do you have that level of control and a strong partnership with Google and the Android team, that combined with inherent components that we’ve always built into our devices with respect to image processing and high-quality screen components, that’s really helped us accelerate, I think.
A lot of it, to your point, is really about getting the word out and talking with our reseller and SI community, as well as the consultant community to help them understand that this is a real line, we’re committed, and we’re not dipping our toes into proverbial water. Like this is something that we have deep investment in and commitment at the highest levels of the organization to go after.
You talked about how easy it is to develop for Android since you don’t have to have a proprietary operating system, but is there a clear distinction between Android and Android TV, in terms of development?
Like I’ve heard some software companies say, “Yeah, the Sony product is great, but it’s Android TV. It’s not Android as we know it. So it’s different. We have to develop differently. There are limitations on what we can do and everything else.” How accurate is that?
Jay Leedy: It’s somewhat accurate. I’d say there are some trade-offs. There are some differences between Android TV and Android, specifically that Android TV was designed for watching TV so some of the capabilities like portrait view, for example, are not native in the application.
There’s ways to work around that. There are currently some cash limitations on a per-app basis that we’re working to address with Google as well, and there’s also I think the impression that our Pro Bravia line is more of a consumer or prosumer approach, and to some degree, that’s, I think informed by a lack of understanding that we have developed and enabled what we call “Pro mode” which turns off certain UI UX functionality, menus and exposes IP control and other capabilities that would be expected in a commercial line of product. So engineers that are unfamiliar with that may rightly or wrongly draw the conclusion that we’re not built for commercial use.
We are in fact, and because of Android, we can expose IP capabilities that are already native to the solution, the device just has to be configured in a specific way in order to take advantage of that. We’ve also very quickly, to the credit of our software development team in the San Diego offices at Sony, in partnership with Tokyo have developed a device policy control application that enables deeper system level access and that has been a product of my working directly with that team and them better understanding what the requirements of the market or what the desires of partners are, and what is ultimately going to be really critical in helping us meet the market needs.
So if I’m understanding that correctly, you may have developers from different companies going, yeah Android TV is just not going to be good enough, but if you can get them on a demo and get a sales engineer explaining what you can do, that changes their minds.
Jay Leedy: It does, and I think what’s important to a growing number of end customers and subsequently the managed service providers and SI that serve them is a need to be able to specify devices that can predictably plug into their existing device management and network topology infrastructure because MDM has grown so rapidly with bring your own device strategies and the need to manage disparate device types. The familiarity with Android has increased rapidly especially, where only three four years ago, Android was really looked at as something that posed potential risk to network administrators.
Now they only embrace it, because they have the tools and familiarity with those tools as to how to effectively manage devices and also mitigate risk on their networks.
And I think with the new Sony Bravia lines that are out, I was reading an email the other day, I think it’s like Android 10, right?
Jay Leedy: That’s right, yep, and with any of the devices that we release with Android TV, we’re obligated to support up to three major updates. Ss Google releases new versions of Android, we would be compatible for three major releases so the Android 10 devices that are hitting the market now will be able to support up to Android 13, for example, which I think is really helpful in helping the developer community understand the extent to which we support their efforts as well.
I think it was the guys over in the Czech Republic, SignageOS guys, who did a review of different smart displays and they took a look at the Sony and said, it was really good in terms of video handling and everything else, because it was a later version of Android versus some of the other ones. Is that something you’re hearing?
Jay Leedy: It is. Yeah, in fact, a couple of our partners, who’ve done initial assessments using benchmarking criteria and content mix and playlists that they use to benchmark all the various players that they evaluate, and in some cases they’re even scorecarding and publicly publishing those results, and our performance based on those assessments has been consistent with purpose-built devices like an Intel NUC or a Mac Mini versus some of the others in the market that don’t perform nearly as strongly. So I think that’s partly because of the processing power that we have, our dedicated video processors as well. And, also having powerful connectivity handling and, some of the other components that really make these strong performing devices.
So is there a “but” that comes up still? You know, “These are great, but they don’t do this or they don’t do that.”
Jay Leedy: Yeah. We have a couple of limitations. One is that per app cache is currently at a max threshold of 2GB, which for many of the applications does not present a challenge, but when you get into scenarios where you’re trying to cache locally assets that are fairly large, that can create a challenge. There’s a limitation with native rotation, that when putting it into portrait mode, as we touched on earlier, it natively doesn’t support that, but in most of the applications that we’re testing, we have an answer for that with HTML and CSS workflows that don’t present any concern and we’re actively working to resolve those issues and take that feedback and insight that we get from our partners and our resellers and customers.
And that’s really my job is to carry those into our planning and roadmap afterwards.
Yeah, so much of digital signage now is built up around web-based technologies that in the same way that you can have a responsive webpage that’ll go into portrait for a smartphone, I assume the same thing is happening here, right?
Jay Leedy: That’s right. The trend, in general, is towards progressive web apps versus native applications, and better understanding that and helping our development team understand how we can address and create a kind of a fertile platform to be able to accommodate those strategies.
It is part of our focus as well, and that’s really why we built this large ecosystem to get as much feedback as we can so that we can remain relevant and proactively drive into the market with the right tools for the community.
So when I looked at Sony in recent years, if I would go to their booth at something like ISC and ask them about digital signage, they would look around and try to find somebody who knew about it and they drag somebody over and they may, or maybe not know much, and if they did, they would point me in a couple of directions to something called TEOS, which is what I gather is more of an office management collaboration toolset, and then there was some CMS software partnership with a company who I wasn’t terribly familiar with so I would walk away from those little drive-by meetings and think, “okay, they’re not really active in this”, but that’s changed if you’re talking to 40-60 different software companies you’re trying to build something up?
Jay Leedy: That’s right, yeah, and the change is also in helping our professional sales organization and the product management and sales engineers better understand digital signage as a whole, but also the nuances and specialized differentiation between the different partners.
You’re right, we did have limited expertise internally prior to Rich and myself coming on digital signage. We had made some inroads and I think had a strategy that entailed reselling digital signage software. That is really not our focus now. We really want to, at the end of the day, remove obstacles to specification and be able to plug into existing estates seamlessly with NSOC that has already pre-qualified as compatible or in the event that, we uncover an opportunity that doesn’t have that compatibility or inherent that we have a process and a program to move quickly and ensure that performance evaluation can take place, both by putting a display in our partner’s hands and putting their product in our software engineers hands and doing parallel testing and having a feedback loop that’s ongoing.
So what are you hearing from the various companies out there?
And God knows there are many of them that have been developing two different system-on-chip displays for several years now, and I say “they” in a global fashion and I understand, some haven’t done that, but many have, where are they going and what are they doing?
Jay Leedy: You mean in terms of…?
The development, do you see a shift to smart displays from PCs, and do you see a different direction in terms of how they’re developing? Cause I get a sense that the smart companies are understanding that they’ve got to stop just being this kind of island of activity where it just like digital science, you’ve got to be integrated.
Jay Leedy: Yeah, you’re right about that. I think generally there was a desire by the digital signage software community to consolidate their development resources as much as possible. So not maintaining expertise on a wide range of platforms is desirable. There’s also been a shift away from any Chrome OS support and that the logical kind of migration is to support Android, so we’re seeing that.
We’re also seeing, in general, a trend towards, using a SOC where possible versus a purpose-built device, both in terms of reducing the cost of hardware, as well as points of failure. But yet you’re always going to have scenarios where there is a dedicated playback device may be required, higher-resolution or video walls, but more and more we’re seeing a desire to specify and be able to run multiple applications on a single device that in many cases Bravia is built to be able to handle, and that goes beyond digital signage, it edges into typical AV installations and all the device control and integrated solutions in that market as well.
So there’s enough processing power on these two to handle to basically multitask or multithread?
Jay Leedy: That’s right.
With the different software companies, are you getting any sense that they’re coming or they’re looking for an alternative to what they’ve been doing in the past, because some of the big guys, the Samsungs, and LGs of the world, in particular, have started introducing their own software platforms or CMS software?
Jay Leedy: Yeah, I’d say that’s correct. There’s a desire certainly by the leading software partners to align with manufacturers that are competing with their business, and that’s the same with the systems integrators and managed service providers where we don’t have a device monitoring network operations kind of service offering.
In some cases, there are manufacturers that have built up those practices and that creates a threat to the highest growth rate part of that industry sector, and it would make logical sense to align with the manufacturer that’s staying in their lane, so to speak, and let them grow the business that is most attractive for them to realize returns on.
But the flip side of that argument is that if you are going with a company that has proprietary smart displays and its own CMS, it’s kind of a matched set, so to speak, and therefore it simplifies the lives of the integrators. You just know that their displays and the software are already baked in and validated for it so that makes it simple for me.
Jay Leedy: Yeah, I can see that. But I think flexibility is a big part of the need in the market. We’re seeing that kind of confirmed with a number of touchpoints through the industry where especially when you’re approaching a customer that has a fairly mature strategy and maybe legacy devices that are across a wide global estate that are not all going to be deemed end of life at the same time, they need to be able to have more interoperability and flexibility and also be able to capitalize on trends as they occur, and as relationships evolve and shift over the life of those things
Does activity and interest in the signage sector differ from what it did 15-16 months ago?
Jay Leedy: That’s a great question. I think I just read your Workplaces Reworked white paper yesterday, which was really well done by the way.
And you slept well last night, right? (Laughter)
Jay Leedy: I did. We are seeing an increased interest in unified communication and hybrid working environments, or I think accelerating the need for physical spaces to be able to have more heads-up displays for situational awareness, all that stuff is driving that.
And I think there are also opportunities because of the way that these spaces are being organized differently to place communication tools where they previously didn’t exist, as well as in the cases of huddle rooms and conference room spaces, there’s a number of clients that are interested in activating both screens and using them as communication tools more passively when that environment is not being used for its primary purpose. That definitely has been a trend that we’ve seen, and I would expect to continue to grow.
Setting workplace aside, are there verticals that seem to be emerging and other ones that are, you would maybe coach a solutions provider or software company to stay away from for now or not bother with?
Jay Leedy: I think enterprise, education, healthcare, they all seem to be on a more of a growth trajectory. Obviously, QSR, especially for the drive-throughs, has gone through a major transformation, and there’s not any in particular that I think I would steer anybody away from, honestly, we’ve seen investments that have been pretty significant in transportation as the operators of those hubs, in airports and train stations, have taken advantage of the less traffic. Being able to put labor to drive installation and overhauling those environments at a fraction of the cost, because they don’t have to work overnight. They can work during the day.
So there’s not anyone in particular that I would say, I would steer away from necessarily where, as far as Sonny’s line of product currently, we don’t have an outdoor display. That’s something that we may choose to bring to market in the future. But as far as working with Sony specifically, obviously, outdoor displays is not something that we would chase but there certainly seems to be plenty of momentum there.
Yeah, I was walking through ISE a year and a half ago, and one of the things that stuck in my head was, “Dear God, there are a lot of companies selling outdoor kiosks,” and that was in Europe. So imagine North America and Asia and add all that up and holy smokes.
So there’s nobody sitting around going, “if only somebody would come out with an outdoor ready display for my use.”
Jay Leedy: That’s right, yeah. There seems to be plenty of options out there, but plenty of opportunities too as a result.
Where do you see the digital signage software and technology going in terms of new developments and overarching trends?
Jay Leedy: Like I mentioned earlier with progressive web apps and a trend towards consolidating developer resources on really focusing on a single platform versus having to support a range of them is certainly a trend in broader integration as well. We’re seeing that with companies like Mersive and Crestron, who are able to support digital signage playback in traditional AV applications, and I think beyond that, there are more comprehensive strategies evolving in corporate communications and using a range of different screen types from mobile phones to desktop to traditional digital signage as channels to communicate and meet the need of where the audience wants to receive that information in any shape or form across the entire chain.
So when you’re working with the 40-50 companies that you’re speaking with, what are they asking and why should they be involved with you?
Jay Leedy: Mainly they’re asking whether their existing native Android application can run on our device or whether they have to develop something unique and more often than not the answer is that their APK can be sideloaded onto our device and very little modification to their code is required.
So a small job versus a six months job?
Jay Leedy: Exactly, yeah. So that’s really attractive, just to have another arrow in the quiver, so to speak and I think they’re also looking for more ways to market.
The enthusiasm that we’ve gotten in general when they learned that Sony is leaning in and getting more serious about the B2B side of the business and digital signage in particular, they’re super excited about it because, like many of us, myself included, some of the first electronics that we had relationships with as we were teenagers and young adults were Sony products, and the idea of working with a brand that has so much recognition in the market for quality, as well as so much innovation in various sectors of our business, including our interactive entertainment division and then this PlayStation product that just can’t even stay on the shelves that we get a little bit of a Halo effect from that when approaching these various partners there, they’re really excited about working with us.
Yeah I’d be curious about that. When you come to a Sony display if you’re looking at it versus some of the other manufacturers out there, I don’t know, I’m thinking maybe you’re not going to win a deal based on your price versus some other commodity product but if the buying decision is hanging around, at least in part on visual quality, then you’re in the hunt.
Jay Leedy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That’s a great point. In terms of color accuracy and acuity and things that are really important to brand marketers, we’re absolutely in the hunt, if not first consideration, and I think that also translates to total cost ownership calculations, and some of the kind of quality benchmarks that we hit that are reflected in our warranties.
The industry experts that have worked with us for a long time and as well as are familiar with a number of other manufacturers gravitate towards us because they know they can, more or less, set it and forget it. They’re not going to incur costs that they may have to pass on to their customers for field remediation and things that may have been problematic for them previously. So yeah, that seems to really resonate as well.
All right, Jay, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Jay Leedy: Absolutely. Dave, great to talk to you again, and I’m glad everything’s going well for you.