Google’s Naveen Viswanatha On The Evolving Business For Chrome-Run Digital Signage And Kiosks
June 22, 2022 by Dave Haynes
The prevailing impression of Google and digital signage is that the tech giant came briefly into the sector a few years ago, made some noise, and then quietly left. But the reality is that the tech giant has continued to be active in digital signage, and there are numerous screen networks out there running on Chrome OS devices through different CMS software vendors.
Then there’s Android, the Google-developed operating system used on a pile of smart displays and separate play-out boxes.
But now Google is again getting visibly active in the digital signage and related kiosk ecosystem, extending an existing program called Chrome Enterprise Recommended to software vendors who use Chrome OS. It’s also introduced a Chrome OS device management license, for narrow-purpose uses like screens and kiosks, that works out to just a touch more than a couple of bucks a month. And there’s Flex, an application that can extend the life of a Windows box by running Chrome, and enable screen networks using a blend of playback hardware.
I think a lot of the early interest in Google, back in 2015, was with the relatively low prices of the software and hardware. These days, it likely has more to do with scale, manageability and security.
Naveen, thank you for joining me. What’s your role at Google?
Naveen Viswanatha: Hey, thanks for having me. I am the Chrome OS Product Lead for our solution areas and our solution areas include virtualization, contact center, and very recently we’ve beefed up our kiosk and digital signage solution area.
Are you at the main campus out in Silicon Valley?
Naveen Viswanatha: I am, indeed. Yeah, right here in the heart of the main campus in Mountain View.
How long have you been with Google?
Naveen Viswanatha: I have been with Google for 16 years but I haven’t been spending the whole time in Chrome OS. I’ve been using Chrome OS for about 7 years, I believe.
So you’re almost a lifer in Google terms?
Naveen Viswanatha: I guess so, it seems like that.
I’m gonna talk about Chrome OS. Can you give me a sense of the installed base globally for Chrome OS? I don’t need like today’s number, but just like … it’s many millions, right?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah. We don’t break out specific details, but yeah it’s in the millions and that kind of spans, I would say across three broad areas. Education is one area. So students and student Chromebooks and boxes. Consumer, and then Enterprise and, within Enterprise, that’s where my focus is in the solution space. So yeah, that’s how we look at the overall market, but yeah it’s seen a tremendous amount of growth, especially in the last several years.
Yeah, the pandemic really put a push on Chrome for Education, right?
Naveen Viswanatha: It did. I would actually say that it increased an already healthy appetite for Chrome devices within the education space. I actually used to be part of the education team, and we went from devices that were primarily purchased by schools and districts to devices that were now starting to see adoption in the home and that was the kind of recent trend that we saw over the course of the pandemic is really devices being used in the home, remote for delivery of curriculum.
Would that be driven in part by just the simple fact that the kids are learning at home now, and the parents are seeing the Chromebooks and thinking, okay these are perfectly workable laptops?
Naveen Viswanatha: That’s entirely right, and in addition to that, some of the unique capabilities allow students to use their education profiles. So the same profile that they use on their Chromebooks at school, they can log into a personal Chromebook at home and all of their data, all of their bookmarks, their applications, everything is synced to them pretty uniquely.
And so, that ability of having this kind of floating cloud profile was another reason that it became really easy to simply adopt Chrome devices at home.
Okay, so on the enterprise side, you know, this is a digital signage podcast so we talk about digital signage. I assume that relative to education and to consumer, the percentage of the installed basis for digital signs of kiosk would be still pretty small, right?
Naveen Viswanatha: It’s smaller. It’s growing though, and in fact, I would actually say that we saw a lot of acceleration, arguably more acceleration broadly in the Enterprise space, over the pandemic in terms of growth, relative to the other verticals I was talking about, and a lot of that had to do with unique capabilities of Chrome that aligned really well with some of the challenges that businesses had during the pandemic to really maintain business continuity, whether that was remote work or whether that was increased concerns around security, data protection due to being remote.
These are all things that Chrome OS was really designed for, and so over the course of the pandemic, we saw a huge acceleration in these trends, and as a result Chrome OS was really the platform and endpoint of choice for many organizations.
When I wrote last week about the announcement that, of the the recommended track for kiosk in digital signage. I said that Google made a big splash in the digital signage space in 2015. They took a big booty in the middle of the primary trade show for the industry and had all kinds of people looking at that booth and going, “oh, interesting, these guys are involved. I wonder what that means and will they take over and so on…” and it didn’t really happen, there would be suggestions that Google got into the space and then got out of the space but what I wrote was basically, maybe they stepped back a little bit visibly, but they’ve continued to be in the digital signage and kiosk space and have a pretty decent footprint that isn’t known.
Is that a fair statement?
Naveen Viswanatha: I think that is a fair characterization and I’m glad you brought that up because, as we’ve seen the trend over the course of the last couple of years, some of the trends that I was talking about with regards to the pandemic, those trends around moving to cloud and web are significant. Those trends in moving to remote and hybrid work are significant, increased data protection and controls are significant, and that primarily those three things really accrue primarily to end user computing so Chrome books and Chrome boxes used by employees.
But in addition to that, I think this kind of ties back to your point, we did see a lot of interesting trends as people started moving back into physical spaces. So increased expectations from customers for self-service options, increased expectations from employees for more engaging physical environments when they do return to the office, and these kinds of latter two trends are unique to kiosk and digital signage. So that’s where we started really leaning more into this business that we have had for some time, as you mentioned, but really on the backs of what our customers and our partners were doing and what we’re seeing as broader trends, we really wanted to lean into this area and really help drive more growth and drive more value into the overall ecosystem znd so recently we have really beefed up our efforts around kiosks and digital signage.
You know, when you work in a very niche industry like digital signage, you have this distorted idea that it’s actually a pretty big industry, but in the the overall scheme of things, it’s tiny, and I wondered if Google, going back a few years, looked at digital signage and continued to look at it and thought this is interesting stuff.
Signage and kiosks, it’s got some possibilities, but it’s so small compared to education. How much focus have you put on it?
Naveen Viswanatha: I think that’s a fair question. The reality, I think is that we have always maintained that we want to be an enterprise computing platform, or commercial, basically anything that requires a business or an organization or an NGO or a government to purchase devices and be the primary buyer. So it’s a very broad space, and over the last several years, we have endeavored to really beef up our capabilities around end user computing. That was somewhat timed coincidentally with the pandemic. So that was an area of focus for us starting in 2018-19, really to emphasize these focuses on these solution areas, as I was mentioning, to really go after distinct sections of the enterprise market, and then very recently, starting to invest in kiosk and digital signage because we’re starting to see additional trends driving that and those trends being lined up with ChromeOS capabilities.
So I wouldn’t say it was due to the size of the market in particular. I think it’s just in terms of when we think about our overall strategy and where we saw our customers really taking the platform, we wanted to really lean into those areas, and so that’s really been the main driver is trying to meet our customers where they are, and identify areas that have a strong product market fit in the enterprise space and you see that as a reflection of the key solution areas that we’re investing in, including kiosks and signage now.
So when Google as a company takes an interest in something like this, how does that manifest itself in real terms? Is there like a dedicated team or is this one market that a broader Chrome OS team pays attention to and puts some work into?
Naveen Viswanatha: That’s a really good question. So I keep referring to these solution areas and maybe it’ll help a little bit because I think that’ll help frame the answer to your question a bit more to talk about what these solution areas are.
A few years ago we started looking at where we were seeing product market fit and where we were seeing our customers adopt Chrome OS beyond education, and really noticed that to deliver a robust solution built on top of this platform, you really needed to have an end to end solution that customers and organizations knew was just gonna work and work really well, and so what that meant was there’s really four components to these solution areas. So there’s underlying features and capabilities of the operating system itself, so security, APIs, core functionality that the operating system provides, even for enterprises, things that are unique to the solution areas and I can list off a few new features and capabilities that we have as an example that are unique to the kiosk and signage solution area but that’s another part of that.
The second component is around management. So how can these solutions areas and their administrators and the folks that manage these solutions, manage the platform easily? And then there’s an ecosystem component to this too, and this is really what I think rounds out our notion of a solution area. An ecosystem includes devices so endpoints and OEMs, as well as peripherals and then ISV partners. So solution providers that actually build their products on top of Chrome OS and we ensure that they’re optimized and integrated into the operating system. So that’s what constitutes a solution area, and as we saw increased focus and investment in those solution areas, we started really orienting our teams to deliver against that.
On the product and engineering side and the UX side within Google, that means that we still rely on broad platform capabilities that you think of more as foundational layers, but increasingly we have teams that are focused on delivering features capabilities, management capabilities, specific to solution areas. And we’ll talk a little bit about that or what we did for the kiosk, and then in addition to that, we really started focusing our partner teams on the partners, both the devices, peripherals, as well as ISV partners that we wanted to work with to really bring these solutions to life, and so there’s increasing focus around these areas and we’re really organizing ourselves across the stack to really deliver towards these solutions.
So you have this Chrome enterprise recommended track for “kiosk and digital signage”. When I saw that, I wasn’t familiar with it and I thought, okay, they’ve created this, but in doing a little bit of digging, it looks like you have Chrome enterprise recommended tracks in other areas already. So this is something you already do and you’ve added digital signs and kiosks?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The solution tracks that you saw prior to the recent announcement for the kiosk track were really built around the end user computing growth that we were seeing in the last several years that I was alluding to earlier, and very recently, last week we announced the kiosk and signage Chrome enterprise recommended solution track, and so nine partners that we worked with, their solutions are validated, they’re optimized, they’re integrated into Chrome OS. That means that our partner engineering teams have worked with these organizations to ensure that everything that they build on our platform works. They are regression tests every release that comes out. So we’re really tightly working with these organizations, and we only expect, especially in the kiosk and signage space, this category to grow over the coming quarters and years.
And this whole validation process, is that to keep your engineers sane or is it in certain respects, a marketing tool to say this is kind of Google approved and Google validated?
Naveen Viswanatha: It’s a bit of both actually. We actually go through and test these solutions within our own test labs, and then these providers also will be testing their solutions with every Chrome OS release, and as a result of that, we badge these providers, these ISV partners of ours, and that badge effectively denotes that level of confidence for any organization that’s going to adopt an end to end solution.
Some of the companies that are involved in this are pretty small in relative terms. Are they getting involved, to use a term a colleague of mine used to use, “to bask in reflected glory that we’re working with Google” or have they made a business decision based on the technology that this is where things are going and we wanna get ahead of it?
Naveen Viswanatha: I’ve spoken to many of these partners and really a lot of it boils down to their alignment either from a business or technology standpoint that they want to really align their solutions with a platform that they feel is going to help them scale their business. These are organizations that are typically developing web-based applications that are lightweight, robust and work well on Chrome as a web-based operating system.
Security is a big concern for them, and I think it’s a growing concern in the signage space. We’ve spoken to many customers having concerns about their screens taken over. If you have more and more screens in your physical spaces, your brand and your operations are potentially at risk, and so a lot of these partners kind of align to that element of Chrome, and I think the simplicity in being able to remotely manage devices, that’s another area that these partners have really embraced and benefited from.
So I think it’s really around looking at what technology and platform they want to align with and that’s where we’ve started our conversations with them and as you mentioned they represent a specific segment of the market, and I think over the coming quarters and years, we’re really looking to add more partners to our kiosk and signage Chrome enterprise recommended track.
I got a sense back in 2015 that when the first iteration of this came out and you had a whole bunch of partners really quickly that a lot of the energy and interest around Chrome devices was, here’s low cost management software and relatively low cost playback hardware versus the PCs that were out in the market then and it was just at a point when you were starting to see set top boxes and things like that being used.
I sense that’s changed, that the partner marketplace is a lot more sophisticated, and as you’ve alluded to, they’re looking more at things like security and ease of management?
Naveen Viswanatha: A hundred percent, that is absolutely right. The kiosk and signage landscape has shifted dramatically, I think, in the last, 18 to 24 months really, kind of emerging out of the pandemic as well, and I think it was shifting before and then I think what happened was that a lot of physical spaces started really being underutilized during the early part of the pandemic, but then that really set customer expectations and business expectations a lot around how they can be use technology to really digitally transform their businesses, and so as people started moving back into physical spaces, customers started moving back into physical spaces, it came with a fervor that I think has really accelerated some interesting opportunities in the signage space.
Opportunities and threats too, as you mentioned, security and data protection and these things are becoming more and more of a concern. Updating, if you have more screens and more kiosks in your physical space, the kind of traditional operating systems that were being used, don’t lend themselves well to that, right? They don’t lend themselves well to being updated, being patched, being managed remotely. I think we’ve all seen blue screens in airports and different types of signs before. That’s becoming more and more challenging, just the reliability and remote management.
So as these trends are starting to really put pressure on a lot of businesses, that’s where Chrome OS is starting to really be considered more and more as a robust platform that can really help accelerate the next phase of digital transformation in these physical spaces.
I get the argument for Windows and the bloatware and the crap on there and the updates you can’t control and all those sorts of things. It’s less of an issue with Linux but there’s still an issue?
Naveen Viswanatha: Linux is an interesting platform. We don’t see it too much ourselves but I think one of the challenges with Linux has to do with that it can do anything you really want it to, but in order to get it, to do what you want, it takes a lot of tuning, a lot of configuration, a lot of setup, and so I think you’ll be spending the cost as an organization on either building up the technical capacity and knowing how to do that and really piecemealing a solution together, and at some point you’re probably gonna ask yourself, is it worth it for our business to really become a Linux expert for our digital signage and kiosk strategy? Is that really core to driving the customer experience or should we rely on a platform like Chrome OS to give us a lot of that as part of its core capability?
And if you’re using something like Chrome OS as a software firm, is there less demand to have in-house expertise around an operating system, if you’re using something like Chrome versus Linux?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, I would say that’s one of the common benefits that we’ve seen. Recently I spoke to a retailer abroad in Asia, and they were saying that they saw an 80% reduction in staff having to focus on updates and management of the platform, and I asked the question because I wasn’t sure if they said 80% or 18% because 80% sounded really startling and in fact they said no 80%, and now these individuals, they’re effectively being focused on higher order capabilities with higher order needs within the organization rather than just going out and servicing screens and devices that needed to be updated, they’re focusing more on higher value business objectives.
And so absolutely, I think this is one of the areas where businesses need to ask themselves is this core, or is it context? It means core to obviously incorporate digital signage and service options within your business, but is it core for your organization to understand exactly how an operating system is gonna work?
One of the arguments that a very successful company in the digital signage space called BrightSign makes … they are spin out of Roku and the CEO is saying that one of the reasons there’s a lot of attraction to our hardware is we don’t really have an operating system. It’s our own proprietary operating system. So there’s nothing to really hack. There’s nothing you can do with it.
I understand the risk with Windows and to a lesser degree with Linux are, and I know you do harden Chrome, but what are there ways in? And if there are, please explain them to me. (Laughter)
Naveen Viswanatha: That’s actually one of the areas that I think we have a very strong track record around, and I will add that systems will get compromised over time, and unless you have a security team, a large robust security team, actively monitoring and ensuring that exploits and vulnerabilities are gonna be patched consistently, that turnaround time needs to be very quick, and that’s exactly what we do on the Chrome OS side, and I think you can look at our track record. We have zero ransomware attacks ever reported on Chrome OS.
It’s also another component that if you double click into the security piece of Chrome OS, it’s really baked into the operating system. Many other operating systems out there will think about security as a bolt on afterthought. It’s core to exactly how Chrome OS works. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Executables are blocked from running on the operating system, they’re just blocked. And so that’s a huge vector of vulnerability that is just removed entirely. Timely security updates, like I was talking about before. We have the ability to roll out updates on a four week cycle. Even if you’re part of our long term stable channel so organizations that don’t choose to get four week updates on the operating system, they wanna actually get six month updates instead, even if you’re on that six month long term stable support channel, we will still roll out critical security updates to you. So you get the best of both worlds, right? And again, we have a whole team of people that are watching and monitoring what kind of vulnerabilities are out there on a consistent basis, and I’ll mention one more thing really quickly and that is that the operating system files are kept in a complete, separate partition, so they can’t be modified at all. So let’s say with kiosk, your app is hacked in some way, or there’s a vulnerability in the application that you’re building, the operating system itself is hardened and entirely isolated from the application session itself.
It’s just a handful of things to think about. I think any chief information security officer or CIO or organization that’s really looking at security needs to evaluate it broadly, and we have a lot of great material that can tell you beyond what I’ve said here. Why Chrome OS is a very hardened and safe operation.
I suspect you’ve also learned a lot through the years too. I know that some of the companies who were early on with Google using Chrome OS, they were frustrated by new versions that would break their software, and I think you got to a point pretty quickly where you started to pin the OS versions and a company could stay on that until they’re ready to move to the next one instead of being auto-updated.
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, and we have learned a lot over the last several years, and you bring up a good point. One of the design principles that we really try to anchor on, when you think about what a business wants, they want predictability and control. They wanna know when things are gonna change, they wanna have the control to be able to initiate those changes.
Even if we have this release train rolling out great new updates, security updates, new features. As a business, you want to be able to throttle that, and yeah, we have a number of different controls that have allowed organizations to do that. A long term stable and support channel, which I mentioned expands the actual stable channel that the operating system is on for six months. So that was a big one that we announced earlier this year. But in addition to that, the ability to, like you said, pin different application versions and be able to know exactly when you wanna roll those out, there’s a number of other controls that allow you to better understand how you’re gonna update your fleet.
So tell me about Flex.
Naveen Viswanatha: Ah, we’re super excited about Flex. So that was one of the three big announcements we had around CER. The first one was the Chrome enterprise recommended solution track that you alluded to earlier. The second one was a brand new SKU that’s focused specifically on kiosks and digital signage, and we can get to that in a moment too, and the third one was the incorporation of Flex.
So Flex is something that we announced earlier this year and what it allows organizations to do is install Chrome OS on any device they already have. So if you have an existing investment, say in Windows devices, they’re aging, you’re not sure when you’re gonna refresh them, maybe you wanna refresh part of them but you wanna get the benefits of Chrome OS, the security, the built in updates, everything we’ve been talking about thus far, remote management, you can now install Chrome OS Flex on those devices and get all of the benefits from Chrome OS.
So we’ve seen that as a really interesting opportunity in the kiosk space as many customers are starting to use that as an. Chrome OS. So they’ll maybe extend the life of their existing infrastructure for a couple of years, and then we’ll see them roll onto Chrome devices in the future, but we’ve also seen organizations look at Chrome OS Flex as a way to really tailor what they want in terms of device capabilities for their signage solutions based on the breadth of different hardware and endpoints that exist out there today.
So for example, if you wanted an existing device that is not a Chrome OS device, either based on the aesthetics of it, based on the form factor or performance, is it ruggedized, fanless, et cetera. You can look at that and say I wanna use that device. It’s not a Chrome OS device, but with Flex now, I can transform that into a Chrome OS device and incorporate it into my overall device strategy.
So why can you extend your life? Is that because it’s a leaner application and strips out a lot of stuff?
Naveen Viswanatha: It’s because we’re able to really look at the hardware and separate the hardware from the software, and so rather than relying on Microsoft’s operating system support and when that’s gonna be EOLd (end of lifed) or when the device itself be becomes EOLd, Chrome OS Flex allows us to effectively say, look, that’s an end point and we’re gonna separate the software and the operating system from the actual device components. As an organization there creates an abstraction layer for you to utilize Flex as a way to extend the life of that infrastructure.
I assume you could also run a blended network as well, so that you could have Chrome OS devices and re refurbed windows or reclaimed windows devices as Flex devices and run concurrently. You don’t have to have a network, that’s just all pure Chrome OS devices.
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head and that’s what we’re starting to see with many of our customers who will start with Chrome OS flex, but then they’ll say … a lot of organizations, especially larger organizations, they don’t necessarily have one device on one operating system or one endpoint or one operating system, they have a plethora of them and these devices might be on different refresh and end of life cycle.
So when there might be one coming up, say, at the end of next year, Chrome OS Flex is a great way to evaluate Chrome OS capabilities. Most of the time customers overwhelmingly are happy with Chrome OS and start using that as an onboarding mechanism for other Chrome devices or then rolling out Flex to other parts of their fleet that might be the end of lifting and subsequent years. And so during that time, they will have, like you said, a hybrid model of Chrome OS devices, as well as Flex devices, and you can absolutely manage those through the single pane of glass, like via the partner pane of glass, one of the nine partners that we just announced, or even our own admin console.
You mentioned a new SKU. What is that?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah we’re very excited about that. The new SKU is called the kiosk and signage upgrade, and what it does is it unlocks all of the signage capabilities that an organization wants, but none of anything else that you need. And what I mean by that is that Chrome OS is an operating system that serves end user computing, as well as signage. On the end user computing side, you need capabilities to manage users, user profiles, logins, different types of login modalities. But on the signage side, you don’t really need that, right? Even if there’s end user interaction, there’s a lot of user modes and user capabilities that are not part of that overall management…
Because it’s a dumb end point in a hell of a lot of cases?
Naveen Viswanatha: I wouldn’t use the word dumb, but because it’s a highly focused endpoint, and as a result of that, we tailored a SKU which is $25 per device per year. So that’s half off, two bucks a month basically, enterprise SKU, and for that, you get this 50% off SKU and very focused functionality, still gives you all the security, all the device controls, cloud management, reporting and insights. You just don’t get the user controls that you get with the Chrome enterprise upgrade SKU, and that’s the full SKU.
But if you did want those user controls, for whatever reason it may be, could you use those? And could you run a blended network with both kinds of licenses?
Naveen Viswanatha: Absolutely and we have a lot of customers that that, that are doing exactly
One thing that came up a few years ago and there was some buzz around it, but I don’t know where it went. There was chatter that Android, which is pretty widely used in digital signage as well, was going to converge with Chrome OS and it was going to be the same thing that didn’t really happen or did I miss it?
Naveen Viswanatha: No, it didn’t happen. I’ve been on the team for seven years, so I’m not sure if what you’re referring to is before my time, but we do have Android and Chrome OS as a company, two operating systems that serve different parts of the overall market.
Now you’re right that there is going to be some overlap. We see Android in the signage space. We see Android focusing a little bit more on mobile kiosk type of use cases. So a customer associate in a store walking around with a tablet style device, so things along those lines, whereas Chrome OS feels like it’s a bit more focused on fixed facility types of infrastructure, and that’s how we see the segmentation today. And we obviously worked very closely with the Android team.
Over time I think, as things evolve somewhat organically, if there are opportunities to bring these two capabilities or two operating systems together, that’s something that we will consider but today we see a pretty natural segmentation.
One thing I will add is that you were talking about managing a blended environment. With the Chrome OS capabilities and Android management capabilities, many organizations are managing both Chrome OS and Android endpoints through their universal endpoint management solutions. So that is a way that these two solutions can coexist even today.
This has been great. I could have talked for at least an hour or more, but we committed to a certain time window, so I should honor it. The last question I wanted to ask is just very simply if software companies and solution providers wanna get involved, or at least look into this how do they start?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, so you can go to our website. We have a lot of great information on our website. For customers, we have a wayfinding guide. We have information about the different solutions that we have for kiosk in terms of both devices that they can use at as endpoints, as well as peripherals that they can also utilize.
On the partner side, on the solution provider side gets in contact with our business development team. I know we are actively looking at working with more and more partners. I mentioned earlier that we listed nine and that’s just a starting point, and what we’ve seen is that on the solution provider and ISV side, as you scale out globally, there are a lot of kinds of localized partners that do a lot of work in different regions, and so we expect this area to really build out significantly over the coming years. So get in touch with our BD team and our business development team, and be happy to work with you, figure out ways to incorporate you into our Chrome enterprise recommended program.
As you dug into this, were you surprised by how many CMS software companies are out there?
Naveen Viswanatha: Yeah, I absolutely was. Especially considering where we were just five years ago or so. It seems like this has been one of the areas where we’ve seen a lot of hyper specialization and hyper localization. So unlike other solution categories like contact center, as an example, you tend to have a number of global players and then a few localized players within each market.
In this particular arena, in kiosks and digital signage, it feels very different because you look at APAC. I can’t even talk about APAC as a market because each country, and sometimes even within countries, different specializations with retail versus employee spaces and workspaces has created a huge ecosystem around kiosks and signage. So yes, long answer in terms of in terms of your original question, but absolutely.
That’s good for me because a crowded market means there’s more to write about and talk about. (Laughter)
Well, thank you very much for spending some time with me!
Naveen Viswanatha: Thank you, and appreciate the time and opportunity, and I look forward to talking to you again at some point.