Rowan Brunger On How Amino Is Applying Its Deep Expertise In TV Set Top Boxes To Digital Signage

March 13, 2024 by Dave Haynes

Set top boxes have long been looked at, theoretically at least, as single-purpose devices that would do nicely as digital signage media players, but it’s fair to say a lot of software company developer and support teams have painful memories of trying to use consumer devices from China as Android-based players.

They weren’t reliable in terms of performance, or even in terms of what showed up from shipment to shipment.

So what if a company that was expressly in the business of commercial-grade set top boxes for the pay TV and cable markets got into digital signage?

That’s the deal with a UK company called Amino, which now has two lines of business – pay TV and pro AV applications like digital signage. These are devices that are engineered to last for five or six years, and in a lot of cases, they are happily ticking away for a decade and longer. High reliability and remote management are inherent in the product design, so meeting that common pro AV demand was largely automatic.

I had a good chat with Rowan Brunger, Amino’s UK-based Sales Director, about the hardware, how the company goes to market, and what’s involved if software companies and solutions providers want to add Amino devices as a hardware option.

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David: Rowan, thank you for joining me. I bumped into you last year and basically said, what do you guys do? Cause I’d never heard of you and we’d intended to do a podcast and finally got around to it. So for those people who don’t know the company, what are you all about? 

Rowan Brunger: Thanks, David. Thanks for having me on.

So yeah, great to be here. We are a company called Amino and we’ve been around for about 25 years. So we have two sides to our business. Primarily, we’ve been a set top box manufacturer within the pay TV world and in the last few years, we’ve made a move to expand our enterprise TV and digital signage side of the business which is rapidly growing some momentum in terms of those 25 years we’ve been around, we’ve probably got 25 million devices in circulation and we’ve got quite a compelling device management system that we’ve tweaked from our experience in the pay TV world brought over to the pro AV arena for managing the states of media devices. 

David: So when you say pay TV, you basically in the context of what North Americans would understand that basically means cable TV.

Rowan Brunger: Yeah, cable TV. So tier one, tier two, satellite providers where we would typically either have an Amino box or we’d OEM a box for the actual operator. So we’re used to selling in big numbers to operators and what really differentiated us in that market which we’re using in this one is the remote device management.

So as you can imagine, if we’re sending hundreds of thousands of boxes out, we want it to be relatively zero touch from the consumer’s environment. We want them to plug the cables in and we do the rest remotely. So that’s really what spawn orchestrate products, which is our device management platform that we’ve tweaked and made more applicable to the pro IV market to manage our media players.

David: When you opened up the digital signage/enterprise TV market, was that based on inbound requests, Hey, we would really like to use a set top box. Do you support this market or there may be multiple answers but I’m curious if you kind of looked at where linear TV or cable TV was going, given streaming and the way that was bubbling up and realized, okay, we needed to, we need to open up a new market. 

Rowan Brunger: I guess a combination of the various different scenarios you’ve given there. I mean, it’s key to say we’ve always had a foot within the digital signage and enterprise video world.

There’s amino products that have been out there for sort of 10 years plus. I guess one of the main alliances partners we had in the past was Triple Play. So we manufactured a lot of the endpoints for Triple Play, Vitech and some of the IPTV streaming guys. So we’ve got loads of boxes out there in circulation and they’re coming up for renewal or people wanting to upgrade to 4k, et cetera. 

So that gives us a natural pull off. Okay, let’s look at this market in isolation rather than just bolting onto our existing business. And then there’s actually looking at the experience that we’ve gained in the pay TV world which has become a very competitive environment to be in.

We can take a lot of that experience and truly add some value within the pro AV space with the gravitas of products and devices that we’ve managed previously and importantly, bringing over our video expertise onto the media player, rather than just looking at signage. We’ve done well where we integrate the two and we’re finding a lot of customers are wanting both of them to run side by side on one device.

So we can pull the huge expertise we have in enterprise video and actually put it on the same device next to, for instance, the CMS platform, 

David: The markets and the use cases are, in some respects, very similar in terms of both needing very high quality of service.

Like the stuff can’t go down, right?

Rowan Brunger: Sure. Yeah. We look at that from a number of different angles in terms of the physical player itself is truly enterprise grade, steel case designed to work in all environments 24 seven and some would argue we’ve even over engineered it. I mean, we’ve literally got boxes that have been running 24 seven in the field for 10 or 12 years solid and they’re still displaying every single hour of the day. 

But then there’s the actual total robustness of the system and that’s the inevitably when something does go wrong and things obviously do go wrong, the ability to fix that very quickly and also the ability to make sure the ongoing security and updates of that device are easy to get onto it, is as important as it running really.

David: Yeah, I would say any number of CMS software companies in the industry have only in the last few years sort of realized the importance of remote device management, whereas it would have been inherent in what you do right from the start, right? 

Rowan Brunger: Yeah, it’s absolutely an upfront thought in where we’ve come from.

And inevitably like a lot of things, you only realize how much you need something when you don’t have it and when there’s a problem. So certainly a lot of the signage projects that were involved with it, it’s not their first signage project at all. They’re learning from the deployments they’ve already made and what the pinch points were and what the really painful bits about it.

And I think we’re in a world now where people are taking their signage a lot more seriously with a big emphasis and cost push to get people back to the high street. For instance, when we’re looking at retail, it’s not just a tick box, we have a signage system in place. It’s got to be absolutely robust.

You’ve got to be able to rely on it and certainly, in times where people are paying to have their content advertised within the stores or the settings, they want to know it’s actually been on the screen. 

David: So you’re competing in a few ways with different kinds of companies. You’ve got the consumer/prosumer android set top boxes that have come over from Shenzhen or whatever. You’ve got special purpose media play out boxes like a bright sign box and then you’ve got companies like SPINX who have their own box and other companies that have their own boxes and then you have PCs.

So how do you kind of position yourself? 

Rowan Brunger: It’s a really good question. So, if I cover the first section early on, I’ll probably include system on chip in that as well. So we’ve got a system on chip users, people have realized that there’s value in having a player but maybe not as necessarily selected.

One that hits all their objectives, I’m sure we say and then we’ve got the likes of the guys that do really high end boxes with multiple outputs. We’ve liked to keep this really simple, we have two products in our portfolio, for instance, we have a POE model and we have a Wifi model.

So we keep it really simple. It’s at a price point where we’re stretching the people from the cheap consumer devices and the system on chip operators but add enough value to make that extra investment to move towards an enterprise grade player but we’re underneath a lot of our true competitors that you know do fit for purpose signage players because we don’t try and do everything. So I’ll give you an example of that.

We like to partner with specialists in areas that aren’t familiar to us. So if somebody needs a four output player, we’ve got a partnership with the likes of Matrox to give you that. So those guys specialize in multiple output play, cards and players, we feed into it. But what that gives the customer is one platform for pretty much whatever they want to do.

So our device management and the reliability is right up there with the top end competitors. But we’ve got a really simplistic view and what our customers like is no matter what they’re displaying or what they’re using the player for, it’s the same player that does it all. So we’ve got one customer that has probably six use cases for our player within their stores.

So a large rollout of about 650-700 stores in the UK and they’re doing multiple things with it but they know it’s a H 200 player,  that is just programmed in different ways for those different use cases and they really liked that from a maintenance point of view. So we’ve kept things really simple.

We are definitely a step up and a professional grade player to challenge the lower end operators in the market and in terms of the higher end guys, I think we’re hitting a price point. They can’t, so we can get mass adoption from our product and we’ve got the right partnerships in place to cover all use cases with the guys that lead the industry in those areas.

David: So for the age 200 player. If I’m buying, like 10 of them, what roughly in U. S. dollars would be the cost? 

Rowan Brunger: So well, I’m doing a conversion in my head. 

David: Well, give me, EU or sterling. 

Rowan Brunger: Yeah, so we’ve got a package to trade within Europe that’s about 240 pounds.

Okay. What are we at? Just over 300 and that’s a full two year package of enhanced support, premium device management software on the player itself. The player itself is around 200 on its own with various different options. So it hits a price point if you want to power four screens; for instance, in a video wall, it actually becomes price.

It prices itself well enough that you could actually put a player on each of those screens, run it as a video wall, or run them individually and have that flexibility. So you’re not just doing one or the other, yet you’re still coming in at probably less than a quad head player that would powerful screens, 

David: Yeah, and it’s interesting. By standardizing on just one box for a whole bunch of different use cases, you could keep a spares pool without having to think, okay, I need two spares of these and two spares of those, and so on. You just have five on the shelf that you can pull off if you need to.

Rowan Brunger: Exactly that. I mean the scenario I just gave you before, they’re even looking at running just some simple audio or some simple HTML pages, just because they like the simplicity that everything is powered by exactly the same thing. 

David: You mentioned that you’ve had stuff in the field for 10 years. Do you have a rated operating life? 

Rowan Brunger: Well, the chipset has changed, which has sort of adapted that slightly, and then you’ve obviously got the provisions of using flash memory but the products that we have in the field have normally been programmed to do one thing, from the offset. So, quite often, decoding video streams, so they haven’t really been updated, and that’s why they’ve been running for 10 or 12 years plus. They’re designed and warranted to run for, you know, the standard sort of five or six years, but they’ve become so robust that people have just left them in cause they’re working. 

We’ve got an airport with 2000 of the units in, and it’s only because they want to change to full grade that they even thought about upgrading them. They’ve been running in excess of 10 years in that airport.

David: So with the build for these units, if I have 500 of them and I decide, okay, I’m expanding, I’m an airport, I’m expanding a new terminal. I need 500 more. Is it going to be a different box at this point, or would that even matter?

Rowan Brunger: The H200 has been around for about two years now, it really depends on when those proxies were deployed but the older boxes that we have in the sort of thousands out there, aren’t supported anymore because they’re well over 10 years old, but we’ve got a very easy upgrade path to swap those boxes out for the new range of products. And in doing that, they’re all on the same platform for managing them then as well.

David: I asked this because one of the complaints, among probably quite a few complaints with buying little Android boxes from Shenzhen or elsewhere is that if you order a hundred of them and then you order another hundred that second batch of one hundred might have different operating systems or different versions of the operating system, different electronics inside and everything else. So every time they show up, you’re starting from scratch.

Rowan Brunger: Absolutely. Welcome to buying consumer products. But we manage our chipsets and our components very strictly, and you can imagine the volumes we make them in because there’s a lot of crossover from the set-top box side of the business but more importantly, we operate Android AOSP. So, we actually control and write the firmware for the product ourselves. So, in terms of updating the products, we’re putting our own firmware on there. We’re not relying on Google or Android updates for anything; in fact, much the opposite, because we want to be in control of it.

So for instance, when you boot one of our boxes up, there’s no app store. There’s no standard Google browser on there, it’s exactly what we choose to put on there, which makes it very fit for purpose because it’s not running a million things in the background. We give it some very clear parameters and control exactly what middleware or APK that we put on there that’s monitored centrally and all the versions and updates are controlled centrally as well. So you know exactly what’s on there and you’re the master of your own destiny. 

David: Are you having to worry about security, well, I guess everybody worries about security, but because, as you just described, does that kind of greatly reduce the risks?

Rowan Brunger: Yeah, it does, and again, this is something we’ve pulled over from our knowledge of the Pay TV market. So working with Android, we adhere to some pretty strict guidelines from Google in terms of security patches and timely updates, et cetera, and we actually think that’s really very relevant in the pro AV market as well. So we’ve actually pulled over the standards that we adhere to on the Pay TV market, within the digital signage space.

So as a result of that, we do at least four firmware updates a year that contain all the relevant security patches because there’s nothing else on there in terms of an app store, et cetera, we’re cleared in very highly secure environments. So we do a lot of work with the government. We’ve got a really interesting project going on, within a prison. So somebody’s made their own middleware that they’re using on the box and actually running entertainment within prison cells using the H200, which you can imagine is a super secure environment. So because we’re in complete control of it, we can make it as secure as we like.

And we’re seeing that more and more prevalent with even retail rollouts now, with things like 802.1X authentication on networks, which I’ve never heard asked for but have been asked quite a lot for recently. So we quite got an agile development team. We’re able to add functions like that and drop them in the latest firmware, and get them out of the boxes very quickly. 

David: So because you’re shipping a lot of units, do you get some sense of what the marketplace demand is? 

For the longest time, people were saying, yes, it would be nice if we went to 4k, but nobody actually needs it yet, and for signage applications, it’s probably never needed. Certainly, 8k, which is being marketed, is something that is probably years away if it ever comes. What is the marketplace actually using?

Rowan Brunger: We are being asked for 4k a lot more. You’re right in the signage space; it’s less applicable, although a lot of the CMS providers don’t even output in 4k, which, obviously, is a stumbling block. But for those that do, we’re just testing a build for 4k content at the moment, and we’ve got out with some beta testers, and that’s going very well. Obviously, 4k video is pretty much a must when people are looking at video, and that’s very much our expertise, how we can stream that and what protocols we use to stream it and transport streams and encryption, is all around 4k and in particular, low latency is something that we specialize in quite a lot. So that takes us down certain vertical markets such as sporting and gaming where latency is an absolute deal breaker. 

So we’re seeing for our players and going back to your question about market trends, I’d say 50% of our opportunities are video-led, and the other 50% are signage-led, but with an element of video, a lot of them are with an element of video as well. So I think our expertise in video is really setting us apart here, and that, down the 4k route. POE has been requested more and more so that’s why it’s standard on our H200s.

David: For retail more than anything I would imagine?

Rowan Brunger: Actually, no, and I thought it would be, but what we’re seeing is the requests for Wi-Fi is actually coming through retail more than anywhere else because when people are doing a retrofit of a store or they want to have quite an agile space within the store and be creative with where they’re putting the screens, there’s not normally a network point there.

So we’re actually finding some of our big retail rollouts are actually going down the Wi-Fi route, which I didn’t expect, to be honest, but we’ve done a separate Wi-Fi unit for that marketplace because leading back to the security, a lot of our government and military deployments require us not to even have the ability to have Wi-Fi in the box altogether, which is why we didn’t just add Wi-Fi to the existing H200. We’ve actually done it as two separate products. But yeah, interestingly, we’ve just launched our, or we’re just in the process of launching our Wi-Fi unit, and the inquiries that are coming in are predominantly retail, and also the leisure industry as well as people want to put more screens and things in bars and pubs that typically have terrible infrastructure. Wi-Fi seems to be the easiest route to go with that as well. 

David: You mentioned streaming, I’m a little curious about that because most of the set-top boxes that are on the market have onboard storage and digital signage most typically is forward and stored and played off of a hard drive locally. 

Are your boxes doing that, or is it all streaming?

Rowan Brunger: No, it’s all streaming. We can digest the number of transport streams such as multicast, unicast, low latency dash, and low latency HLS because that’s what our bread and butter are on the set-top box side of the world.

So we’re finding a lot of people for instance, within the betting industry where low latency is an absolute must, we’re working with specific middleware vendors that provide the streams on an OTT basis, and we decode them locally on the box with various different levels of encryption and it’s enabling people to reduce the amount of head end hardware that they’ve got. Even down to sort of office builds, government buildings where there’s an element of wanting just some basic news channels alongside the signage, the ability to switch between the two. So typically, you’d have a big head end, consumer set-top box with aerial on the roof, bringing those streams down, we’re able to bring them in completely OTT.

So we remove the need for all of that hardware, and just, bring it on an OTT basis straight to the box, which is game-changing for somebody that’s, maybe, got a larger state and they have to rent aerial space on the roof of all their stores, have a big server unit within there, consuming a lot of power, needing managing, and obviously bringing those streams down locally, we literally just pop the addresses into the box, into a JSON file and we pull them down through our player that’s on board within the software stack.

David: Are there worries at all about the quality of service and reliability of service for connectivity? Because God knows that used to be an issue, but maybe it’s gone away. 

Rowan Brunger: It’s becoming less of an issue because with different encryptions and transport streams, they require a lot less bandwidth. It still needs assessing, obviously, when you’re looking at a sign. But you can tweak the bitrate frames between the different encryption levels to get to a happy medium of a quality that you want alongside a bandwidth that you’re willing to play with. So, it’s becoming less of an issue. We can still obviously decode on-prem feeds as well when it’s absolutely paramount that the feeds have got to be on-premises but the bandwidth is becoming less and less of an issue now. 

David: You mentioned enterprise TV at the front end of our chat. How do you define that? 

Rowan Brunger: So it’s really whether it’s TV-led, and what I mean by enterprise TV is, anything that’s not residential, and not, hospitality so retail, office environments, sports stadium, things like that. That’s where we’d class as enterprise TV. So it’s the enterprise-grade of the box, but it’s primarily streaming IPTV rather than just signage. 

David: Do you sell direct or do you kind of go through a channel or, through software partners?

Rowan Brunger: So we sell purely through a channel. We sell through distributors around the globe, trade only, through the channel directly to our system integrators, and onto the end users. So yeah, we’re a channel-focused business, and that’s something that we’ve recently sort of redesigned because that model is very different from what Amino is used to in the Pay TV market where they may deal directly with operators.

We’ve decided that within this marketplace, a channel-only focus is the best way to go. It ensures our partner’s protection on pricing and margin, et cetera, and also gives us scalability that we’ve got partners out there promoting the product for us.

David: When you started Looking at the digital signage market, was it a little baffling when you realized how many software companies there are?

Rowan Brunger: Yes, there does seem to be an ever ending amount of CMS partners to play with. We’ve worked with a couple that we’ve got a history with and onboarded those guys. We’ve now got an accreditation process. So when we do onboard a partner, we truly onboard them as a partnership rather than just saying, okay, we’ve tested that version of the APK, and that works fine. Let’s call it accredited. 

We actually onboard them and make a commitment that CMS will work ongoing with Amino and we go into a partnership with the CMS so we get beta releases of each other’s software so we can truly test it in advance, which is why it takes a little bit of time to onboard, although we have quite an impressive list of CMS vendors on the list to go through accreditation, so it is definitely a nice route to market. We want to play with as many people as we can. At the same time, not overloading ourselves. 

I think what’s helping us there is the fact that a lot of CMSs seem to develop their APK before the platforms, so we do tend to be able to onboard people fairly quickly. And if there is any integration work that needs doing, it’s fairly straightforward, and we’ve seen it before on somebody else’s application. So yeah, onboarding and partnering are absolutely key for us over the next 12 months. We don’t want what CMS somebody uses to be a barrier to sell, and it’s not just a CMS, we work very closely with a number of streaming middleware companies as well that are specific in certain vertical markets as well. 

David: So you’re at a stand at some trade show and a CMS, digital signage CMS software company walks up and says, “Hi, I’m aware of you guys, and would like to be involved.” What’s that thing you tell them when they say, “What do we need or how do we need to be set up in order for this to work?” 

Rowan Brunger: Initially, we would ask for a version of their application and log in to their system, and we deliberately ask for no more than that because we want to test it as a virgin user if you like. So we put it through a first round of testing, which is:

Does this go onto the box? Does it behave as if I would expect it to behave as a user? And that’s our first round of testing. Normally, if that goes okay, we put it forward towards a full Q.A. test with our Hong Kong development team, which is a 400-point Q.A. test, which literally tests every element of the software and the integration, and at that point, we give a report back to the CMS provider to say, “Yes, it’s all gone smoothly” or “It works, but can we suggest we do this and this integration together to make it a better experience?” And then, we go into the commercials of the partnership and make sure that we’re sharing best practices with each other in terms of updates and things.

We also have a lot of APIs that are available through our remote management software that we’re finding a lot more of the CMS partners want to integrate into their CMS platform to give the end users, that one pane of glass, whether they’re managing content or the device that they can do it in one place. So we have completely open APIs for the CMS partners to be able to do that and put a lot of the functionality that we have in our device management, actually in their front-end system that the customer is using every day for the content. 

David: Does your platform support IP streaming or multicast or that sort of thing? Is there a foundational thing they have to have? 

Rowan Brunger: No, not at all. We are dealing with some partners to put our video play technology within their CMS but it’s not these guys’ expertise. So, actually, the value to them of working with Amino is you can run their CMS software and switch seamlessly into an IPTV solution alongside their CMS. So, all of a sudden, they can speak to their customers about IPTV streaming solutions alongside pretty much any CMS rather than having to have a specialized solution incorporated into their roadmap. 

How many times have we provided screens to somebody and you get the call, maybe two, two weeks later, two years later, “Can we put some TV streams through this for us?” For us, that’s just a service we can turn on without having to ship any hardware. So it gives a lot of flexibility to these existing CMS deployments. 

David: You mentioned the Hong Kong software team, is that where the company is based? 

Rowan Brunger: No, we’re based in Cambridge in the UK. So we are a UK-based company and have been for our existence. We have a couple of support teams. One is in Portugal, level one support is in Portugal, and we have a level two support team in Hong Kong. So we’ve got to follow the sun kind of coverage on support. 

David: And manufacturing is done in China like everybody else?

Rowan Brunger: Some manufacturing is done in China. There’s a whole host of countries that we’re manufacturing in. We’ve got stuff coming out of Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong. It depends on the product or the chipset, but yeah, a fairly well-diverse manufacturing plant. We’re not stationed all in one place.

David: What’s the next AV trade show that you guys will have a stand at or a presence at? 

Rowan Brunger: So Infocomm is coming up. We’ve got a presence there, and we’ve just done ISE, as you know, and then we’ve got some presence at NAB as well because we do see some crossover from some of the broadcasting shows that are looking at enterprise video or signage. So our trade show calendar is still split between Pay TV, but with a much larger emphasis than we have done on the AV world. 

David: If people want to know more about Amino, where do they find you online?

Rowan Brunger: Sure, just go to 

David: Clever! All right, Rowan, thank you very much for your time.

Rowan Brunger: Thank you, David. Pleasure as always.

  1. Colin Brighton says:

    Another sales pitch
    On a paid blog over the top pricing get real buy a box at 20 quid on amazon

    1. Dave Haynes says:

      Hi Colin … no content on Sixteen:Nine is paid, other than the ad banners … I approach interview subjects about podcasts, not the other way around … I agree it is possible to buy a little Android device for “20 quid” off Amazon that could do the very basics of running a set of video files over and over, but I’d never advocate that … far too many issues

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