Erik DeGiorgi Explains How Software Is Key To His Digital Signage Hardware Company’s Future
October 19, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Mediavue Systems has the somewhat unique experience of being a PC manufacturer that started in digital signage, versus any number of companies that had personal or industrial computers with the dimensions, specs and pricing that met the industry’s needs and desires at the time.
One hell of a lot has changed in the intervening 15 years, and the Boston-based company has shifted with them. Erik DeGiorgi co-founded the business with his dad Dave. He’s now its President and focused on what he says is a major evolution of the company and brand.
His goal is changing industry perceptions about what Mediavue does, to a point that he now talks about the company more as a software shop than a hardware manufacturer.
That’s because Mediavue has been steadily developing software tools – most notably for configuration, deployment, remote device management and security. The IT people they work with think much more about uptime and efficient management than they do about the size of the box or, in particular, the price.
I had a great chat with Erik about the roots of his company and where PC hardware and software sit in an industry landscape that now also has options for low-cost smart displays and single-purpose media players.
Eric, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the rundown on MediaVue systems?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, sure, Dave, first and foremost, thanks for having me on, and also thanks for the invite next month. Looking forward to seeing you and everybody else at the mixer. Nice to get back to reality there, huh?
Erik DeGiorgi: But yeah, sure. I’ll give you a snapshot. We’ve been around for about 16 years at this point. So MediaVue was founded in 2007. The initial product we brought to market was now what’s called a media player. We started designing and building bespoke hardware for the industry back before there was really a name for it, and so we brought to market our first hardware device, I believe it was probably 2008 when we went to market, and the company’s evolved quite a bit over the past 15 years. We initially went to market through our channel relationships with CMS partners.
So back in the day, we were a heavy SCALA house long before the StrataCash acquisition and everything. But we partnered with CMSs. We started to develop operating systems, include that on our devices and embed CMS and try to make it as turnkey as possible. The evolution of the companies really centred around the kind of product innovations and responses to needs in the market. So again, at the very beginning it was, let’s build a device that can go and be turned on 24/7, play videos and not break as they all were. Then it was, okay, we fixed that, then how do we create it more turnkey because of all the problems we were encountering? The integration, putting the software in the hardware. Then once we resolved that it became an issue of scalability. So, if you remember back, 10-15 years ago, these large-scale networks would be deployed, but there’d be no network management.
The people would transition, and there’d be no way to know what was in the field. There’d be no way to cope with the problems when they would arise. It was just really an operational nightmare for the system integrators and certainly the end customers that were trying to scale these networks. So we responded to that and built out a robust network management platform. So that really was the kind of pivot point where we moved from being really a hardware company to a software company. So today, fast forward, what we deliver is really a turnkey operating platform. So it’s a combination of hardware, it’s a combination of our software management tools, support that goes along with that. It’s the integration of CMS software. It’s audience analytics, whatever you need to design and deploy and manage signage networks in an array of markets, we now have a fairly robust platform that supports that at scale.
That’s interesting that you describe yourself as a software company. I would think most people who know MediaVue would think, they’re a hardware company. They make small form-factor PCs for signage.
Erik DeGiorgi: And I may be getting ahead of myself because, as I do, but we are actually poised to go extensive, top to the bottom rebrand of the company right now and teaser come January, the look and feel of MediaVue is gonna be quite different.
So did you start the company with digital signage in mind or were you doing industrial computing and found your way into it?
Erik DeGiorgi: So David, our CEO was previously, his previous company was actually in display repair. So this was back in the 90s and the early 2000s. When people used to fix things, he was repairing CRTs and was doing that for all the major brands. He had service contracts with Dell and ViewSonic and Mitsubishi. If you bought a PC at Circuit City, you know the service contract would go to him. So he was doing large scale monitor repair, and by virtue of that, he got pulled into the digital signage industry because of early projects, this is 20 years ago, he had the service contract for the display and this was back in the day of, hanging a Dell Optiplex on the back of a screen in a large harness, and those things were failing left and right, and by virtue of having the contract for the display, they asked him if they could fix those, and so he got into that business and then looked at that and said, is there a way to build a better mousetrap here?
And that was the origin story. MediaVue was started, and we went to work on what became our first media player, but it was very much in response, having the exposure to the earliest deployments, seeing the catastrophic failure rates, and then coming up with a solution.
David DeGiorgi is your dad, right?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, you will see a common last name there. He and I sat down and started MediaVue in about 2007.
Is he still involved?
Erik DeGiorgi: He is still involved. I’ve read some of your recent postings and things, there comes a time in life when you maybe step back from some things and focus on some other things and, Dave, will never slow down, don’t let me mischaracterize him.
Yeah. He’s a bit of a live wire from what I remember of meeting him.
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, he’s 110% at all times. But yeah, we certainly work in tandem and have since the outset.
And you’re in the Boston area, right?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yep. Our HQ is just south of Boston, and we’ve got an international presence. We’ve got sales teams out in MEA and spread across certainly here domestically. But one of the things that I think is unique, going back to our roots, in hardware, we still have our assembly line in Boston, so since day one and continuing today, I think the majority of what we do is really in the kind of management tool set and all of the software stack and the integration and everything that we do at that level, we still design and assemble hardware, and we do that in the back half of our headquarters and we’ve got our assembly floor right there along with the front of house.
And how does that resonate with resellers and end users? Is that important to them that it’s domestically made?
Erik DeGiorgi: I don’t know if it’s there’s a Made in USA badge on it, and that’s important to me. I think where the value comes from having control over that process. So our assembly line is very adaptable. So we can very quickly respond to the needs of customers. So whether that’s a hardware configuration, whether that’s a setup and an integration with different software, we can do all of that and make very quick adjustments to our assembly line to accommodate the customer and I think that’s where the value is.
Yeah, I’m sure there are people who do wanna buy products made in the USA but I, I tend to think there’s probably a lot more who are buying for other reasons and like the idea that there’s the support that is in 12 hours away and in Mandarin.
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, absolutely, and the full experience that you get with MediaVue is based domestically, So everything, the account rep you get obviously is regional, you get attached with a Sales, Engineering, and CSE at the beginning, that’s a person that’s domestically based. That individual works with you through pre-sale. When it converts to a sale, that person maintains the attachment to that account. You have continuity there throughout the lifetime of the deployment, and that’s how we differentiate.
Our origins are certainly in hardware, we’re doing a lot more now. But we’re never gonna be able to compete on cost with some of our OEM competitors out in Asia. There’s just absolutely no way. So we have to create a lot of value add. We have to create a lot of it’s an experience working with us. It’s the whole lifetime of the engagement and the deployment, it’s very hands-on, and that’s how we’ve been able to differentiate.
You describe the old days of Dell Optiplex hanging off the back of monitors and back in 2007, at that time, it was a big deal to come up with a small form factor PC. That doesn’t really matter anymore, does it? Cuz everybody is like that.
Erik DeGiorgi: The playing field has levelled, certainly on the hardware side it’s, but it’s in form factor, it’s in computing power. The value proposition back then was, how many bits and bytes can I put in the smallest form factor and, run my 720p video and, do that successfully, and the playing field is flattened there. It’s not as competitive as it was. The computing’s kind of caught up.
I always get a kick out of how many pixels can you actually put on a display before you have to be three inches away from it before you can tell, so it’s like hardware is caught up, I think, to the industry’s need if that makes sense. So now it really becomes about the value of Integration. How do you successfully roll out a deployment? How do you have that go as seamless as possible, both in the installation and in the ongoing management and maintenance of that network? Because we all know the greatest cost to doing that is getting people in the field, turning wrenches and screwdrivers. So the more you can minimize that ease, the burden for the integration partner. Certainly, that brings value to them as they’re reselling things in managed services contracts. It brings value to the end customer because the cost of operating the network in total is far less. So really honing in on the stability, reliability, the scalability of these networks is, I think, more of our present challenge rather than, packing pixels on screens and having more gigabytes of processing power.
I’m gonna guess that resellers and integrators understand that a lot more than end users.
Erik DeGiorgi: There’s certainly a learning curve. The ones that have been through it and felt the pain know it very well. You have to go through it to see that. We still get opportunities to come across and people will haggle on price and this box is a hundred dollars less than that box or something and we try to educate, we try to help people see the light, if you will, and look at the total cost of ownership of these networks a little bit differently maybe than they are, and it’s one of those lessons that you have to learn.
And I noticed on your product list that your small form factor, I forget the name of it, but it was a small box and it just had a Celeron running in it, and it used to be the case that people would pay a lot of attention to the generation of the processor and everything else and they might think that a Celeron not powerful enough, but they are now, right?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yes, certainly years ago, it was very much spec driven, and it was very important to, gigabytes of this and megabytes of that. Like I was saying before, the technology’s kind of caught up to the needs of the industry and there’s only so much you’re doing. Compute power really is now doing onsite analytics and doing things like real-time decisions and stuff like that, that’s pushing thresholds. It’s just not as important a factor because there’s just enough there.
When you started it was PCs and PCs, that’s what people used for digital signage. There was the odd sort of dedicated player type, like the old digital view boxes, and there were a few others out there. But then smart displays came along, BrightSign bubbled up, and now you have two categories that you’re competing with. How do you sell against those?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, so that’s a great question. So we’re rooted still in that PC tradition, and we do so because we’re looking at the life cycles of these deployments and we believe that kind of platform has the required adaptability and scalability where some of these other architectures don’t, simply I look at it as, if you’re rooted in kind of this PC topology and architecture, it’s built to do a lot of things versus doing one thing very specifically if that makes sense. So it has the ability to adapt not just to the initial customer needs, but throughout the lifetime of the deployment, and that’s getting into some of the things we’re gonna be rolling out first, at the beginning of next year, really rely on that adaptability, that topology.
There are also some big security issues, and it’s something that’s not discussed in the industry that is very much overlooked when you get into ARM-based products, and I will try not to get too technical here, like smart displays when I say system on a chip and stuff like that, that’s a hardware stack, that’s a chipset that is licensed and manufactured by any no name, chip house that you’ve never heard of versus say an Intel, AMD and the major difference from a security perspective is that you need to maintain Operating system, you need to maintain your operating system and have that be updated because a lot of your security, a lot of your threat mitigation comes from having a stable and current operating system.
What happens is when you use these unknown chip manufacturers to develop the SOCs and things like that, they don’t maintain driver support for the current operating system updates. So what happens is you are unable to continually update your operating environment because you don’t have strong driver support for those chipsets. So in our opinion, that creates significant security vulnerabilities. So it’s yet another reason why we maintain the kind of traditional Intel and AMD chipset topology.
Is it your opinion and perspective, or are you hearing real-world stories talking about that?
Erik DeGiorgi: I don’t hear many people talking about it.
I think it’s one of those things like many things in the security world that is just unknown, and it’s not something that comes up. So it’s a message we’re certainly trying to get across.
So the devil’s advocate argument would be if you’re not hearing about it, maybe it’s not really a thing?
Erik DeGiorgi: Maybe. I can’t argue with that but it’s not likely. We’re a very technical company, so when we all sit around at the lunch table, these are the kinds of conversations we have about vulnerabilities. So we’re on the pulse of it may be a little more than others and paying attention to it a little more than others, but yeah I do think it’s there, and so it’s a combination of that. It’s a combination of a kind of being there are inherent limitations, capability, and limitations when it comes to those types of chipsets as well, you’re not able to just load any software on it. You’re not able to go and connect peripheral devices to it. It doesn’t have that degree of adaptability. So it’s for all those reasons, we’ve stayed with the kind of technology stack, the topology that we have.
My perception, and I’m definitely not a hardware expert or a software expert, is that these days, if you have a simple application like digital menu boards or FIDS displays, those sorts of things you probably don’t need a PC for that. But if you’re getting into anything, complicated and challenging, and as you say, it needs to evolve and have some malleability to it, you’re probably gonna lean towards a PC. Is that a fair perception?
Erik DeGiorgi: I think it’s a fair perception. I think it’s consistent too with where we position in the market. There are so many kinds of more simple use cases, I got a menu board and that’s up and running. I’m gonna say that with a caveat but I’ll get back to that in a second. The majority of digital signage is putting a picture on a screen, right? And that’s about as simple as it gets, and we obviously can do that. I don’t think our value is in that kind of In that type of use case.
And you’re probably not gonna win on price?
Erik DeGiorgi: We’re certainly not gonna win on price, and we’ve got no problem with it, it’s just not our market. We’re really focused on how we can be a technology partner for a large-scale enterprise that wants to deploy signage and communications infrastructure as an asset for their organization, and we partner closely with them.
We work with, like I said, all of our software partners on the CMS side, and all our integration partners to put together a technology platform and an implementation program in order to deploy and manage that at scale. That’s our sweet spot. Going back to the QSR example, menu boards, I guess you could say are simple, right? You’re putting it up there. It doesn’t really change much, It’s just but then what happens when a menu board goes down? Because that’s your business. If you don’t have a menu, how are you gonna sell it? It’s where we bring value to say that the application is doing things where you might have content switching. You might have redundancy in those menu boards. So do things with a bit more sophistication to make sure you’re managing uptime and maintaining uptime. You can look at something and see it as simple, but at the same time to do it well at scale, there’s always increasing layers of complexity.
Yeah that’s an interesting point because I think of digital menu boards as being really simplistic applications, but they can go down. So you need that failover and everything else.
Erik DeGiorgi: There’s that, and then it’s also a really dirty environment. We’ve done QSRs and gotten devices back that you have to scrape the grease out. Again, there’s always more complexity than you see at first glance.
Is it fair to think that you probably tend to get more involved in projects than other companies that are just basically selling boxes?
Erik DeGiorgi: Certainly, yeah. That’s our value proposition, that’s our model.
Our sale is as much our management tool, our ongoing support and service, as much as the device, if you will. We’re very hands-on. We’re able, again, to be very flexible and adaptable to the customer’s needs and that’s not just to get the project going. That’s the long-term maintenance and management and of course in conjunction with our integrator partners.
You have something called Active Network Manager. What is that and why is it needed?
Erik DeGiorgi: Sure. So that is the name of the management stack of our software that I’ve been referencing. And so that was designed and built. We started working on that maybe not quite 10 years ago but pretty close, and that was to solve the problem with scalability. As I had mentioned previously, the devices work, and the integration with the CMSs works, but it was very difficult to deploy and manage at scale.
So what that tool enables now, so if you partner with a MediaVue and purchase our product, what you’re gonna get is you’re gonna get an endpoint. You’re gonna get a media player, a device that’s gonna have an operating system installed on it that we design specifically for the content management software or other software that’s being used and that is maintained. So part of our offering is not just the deployment of that, but we actually have a quarterly update scheme for our entire operating environment. So we will aggregate all the different updates and security patches and everything for the entire software stack, and then we test and validate and then bundle everything. So you don’t get that kind of experience where your iPhone updates and all of a sudden your app doesn’t work, so we eliminate that as a possibility, and then obviously stay on top of security. So you get that, and then the kind of software that brings all that together is our Active Network Manager, and that enables an installer to plug in the device, push the power button, and then have the network owner, the person that is, is managing the network to see that come up, to register CMS to go and set all of the, whether it’s network settings, we that can take control of the display so we can make sure the display is on when it’s supposed to be.
All of that comes through an Active Network Manager and that’s the toolset that enables it. It’s really IT team-focused. So whoever it is, we don’t do anything with content. We don’t do anything with that. Never have, never will. We’re strictly focused on having a robust technology stack and a toolset that enables the IT team to manage effectively. So an Active Network Manager is the heart of all of that, right? And, facilitates a lot of the kinds of a lot of customer interaction with the platform and the user experience that I’ve been describing.
So 10 years ago when you started developing that a lot of the CMS companies had either no or pretty thread bear device management capabilities within their software. You had companies like Diversified who had kick-ass device management way, way back then, but a lot of these guys have caught up now. So are these parallel things or can they work together?
Erik DeGiorgi: Yeah, I mean there’s certainly management as we’re describing it now is considered a necessity, so everybody has got on board. There are certain things baked into the CMS, some certain CMS offerings that have some device management. There are some things that we can do for various CMSs, like I mentioned, registration and plug and play and stuff like that. Yeah, and there are certainly third-party companies, good friends that just have a management platform for anything. So management has become ubiquitous. I think what differentiates what we’re doing is we’re really looking at it as a total platform. So it’s the combination of hardware and software. It’s the depth of integration that we’re able to do by virtue of owning that entire ecosystem. So it just enables more. You can do more.
Sparing you all the technical details results in greater stability, greater security, and greater longevity of the network, and that’s something that’s different as well. We look at a successful network being 5+ years. So if we install the devices, we don’t want them to be touched for five years. The current hardware is about 10 years old. It’s obviously like iterations of that and it’s not the same exact stuff but we have stuff that’s been deployed that is the previous generation for 10+ years.
So we look at a 5+ year lifespan. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think industry standards might be like two to three would be considered successful, without any major intervention. But we look at it as for at least five years. We wanna get the stuff out, we wanna manage it, we want it to physically work. We want to have the remote capabilities to make necessary changes without having to deploy people, and I’m careful with my words cuz we’re gonna be releasing some stuff that even greater enhances that remote capabilities in the coming months.
Do you have metrics around fail rates, like people talk about 99.59s and all that sort of thing?
Erik DeGiorgi: It’s funny you bring that up because we exchanged an email about potentially doing an article around that, and yeah so what I proposed and what we’re looking at doing is we actually just did a full audit of every intervention last year that we had on the support side, and I think those kinds of numbers and statistics, it’s almost cursory. It’s just fine, how many .9999 can you put in? It’s just, I don’t think it really tells the story, and the story that I’m interested in telling and sharing, certainly with the industry is, yeah, the physical devices work. It’s the stuff that works. Software is fairly stable, but it’s usually like the interaction of things.
I’m just thinking through the kind of statistics that we pulled from last year. For as many actual hardware issues as there were, there were many more issues with something happening within the operating system, a software bug coming up. It was an interaction between, third-party software that we’ve integrated onto the devices. It was a failure in setup, in installation. There were so many.
Or stupid shit like the janitor unplugging the thing.
Erik DeGiorgi: Oh, for sure. That happens. That’s real life. It’s absolutely real life.it’s that it’s someone going and stacking boxes on the device and having it burn up, you know what I mean? We’ve seen it all. I hope it doesn’t come across that I’m trying to avoid answering your question.
The complexity of these things, just tells a different story rather than, one out of a thousand failing every year, or even like MBTF, it’s not even a really accurate way of analyzing things. I’m hoping that if we collaborate on that, we can share some insights on what is a company that’s deployed this hardware and software like this for well over a decade and has tens of thousands of devices that are currently managing, what it actually looks like in the real world? And I’m excited to be able to share that.
So in January you’re gonna do a brand refresh and push a revised proposition out there. How’s all that gonna roll out?
Erik DeGiorgi: Well, with your assistance of course. So I think what we want to do and it is very consistent with what you’re saying. Our legacy is that when people think of our company, they think of hardware, what we’re doing and what we are, the company we are today is just so different. And it’s really that entire ecosystem platform that we’ve created and we deploy, it’s the way we interact with our customers throughout the lifetime of the deployments and the support and everything that we offer.
How we’re going to do it? It’s gonna be digital, so the look and feel of the company online is gonna be very different. We’re going to be making announcements through all the industry publications. So we’ve got a hard date right now of January 17th, so we’ll see if we make it. But we’re hoping to put out a kind of industry-wide blast and when people sit down at their computers on that day, they see something that they haven’t before.
All right. If people wanna know more, where did they find you online?
Erik DeGiorgi: MediaVueSystems.com
All right. Eric, thank you so much for taking the time with me.
Erik DeGiorgi: Dave, thanks for having me on.