Where digital signage software is going

I did a webinar in Sept. 2010 with Digital Signage Magazine and NEC. I was asked to yak about trends and an outlook for what NEC and some others call digital signage CMS systems. I still just call it digital signage software, but whatever …

The plan was to put this up on SlideShare, but I have discovered it doesn’t really take your notes as I thought it did. I like big graphic slides to talk to, instead of walls of text. So the PPT on SlideShare with one or two word statements was kinda useless.

Instead, I did something like 20 slides so I will break it into two, as some people asked me to send them the PPT. This gets it around more effectively. Nothing too rattling or kooky. Just my thoughts and observations. The narrative are the notes attached to the PPT, and essentially what I blabbered on about.

Overview

There are at least 300, and perhaps as many as 400 digital signage content management systems out there, globally. At least two more came on last week. About 80 per cent of what they offer matches up with what everyone else offers.

Competition is fierce.

End-users are overwhelmed.

The sales cycle is very long.

And the landscape is steadily changing.

Leader?

Many companies, somehow, make empty claims these days about being the global leader in this sector. There is no clear market leader yet, and probably won’t be for some time.

However, this is a war of attrition, and larger, better financed companies will survive and take more market share with time. Companies like NEC will be around because of their size, product diversity and history.

Lots of VC or personally funded start-ups will not.

Pricing

It’s heading south. It’s a simple supply versus demand thing.

With so many built offers out there, that can’t help but drive competition on price. There have been quasi-free offers for a few years, but this year we saw NEC Displays announce its hosted VUKUNET platform is now free … to anyone. It’s a general use platform for the small to medium business crowd, and what it has done, or certainly should, is make a lot of companies get focused.

There are other offers out there that are free … ish, or very low cost, as well.

On the flip side, there are companies that have managed to hold their pricing at where it’s been for a while. That’s because what they do is more specialized, or they offer levels of service and support that make the extra cost seem entirely reasonable.

Focus

Many companies are now getting far more focused on certain verticals, such as menu systems, wayfinding, hospitality, and retail. The days of having a general offer are fading.

Companies need to differentiate. If they don’t, they’re probably done.

When you can’t be picked out of the crowd, all you have to compete on is price, and that’s deadly.

Tunnel Vision

There is still a fair amount of tunnel vision out there — executives at companies who take a very narrow view of what their offer needs to be.

They blithely ignore other technologies that can do what they do … plus, plus, plus. Inside AND outside the sector.

Aspects of what they do are open. They may have limited APIs. But they are largely working in walled gardens, with closed development.

Open

The way forward for a lot of companies with digital signage software systems is removing the walls from their development and IT gardens, and both opening up and tapping into web services.

There are tremendous technologies and services to use that help create and manage content, more effectively plan and manage networks, and keep devices in the field operating … just to name a few.

There are piles and piles of web services companies that have capabilities that can plug in with just a little effort. Platforms that integrate these sorts of services and make them run off one login, one bill, one database will have a leg up on the others. Why build something that already exists and is used?

Hardware

We are seeing more and more tiny little non-PC boxes like the Spinetix unit from Switzerland. Iadea, Advantech, Noxel and others also have their own small form factor units that are based more on set-top box technology than PCs.

Now PC folks will argue, “Why pay as much or more for that when you can have a full x86 PC?”

Answer: reliability.

And frankly a lot of networks do not and should not be running multiple zones and Flash and all the other things that have full PCs groaning to keep up. And locking up.

Technologies such as SMIL and SVG that run on these units enable dynamic, low-overhead content that gets moved around efficiently and is all, in many cases, a network needs for programming.

Reliability

Companies like Intel and AMD have recognized the growth opportunity of this sector, and one of the ways they think they can play is through encouraging the use of tools like Intel’s Active Management Technology.

CMS systems have wildly varying levels of access and control over what’s happening with their devices in the field, and what often gets overlooked in the early stages of networks is the high cost of field servicing. Sophisticated remote management and monitoring tools take a lot of that cost out.

Five years ago, few people seem to be talking about device management. Now it ,entotHardware and software will change that and start bringing up reliability and reducing operating costs.

Widgets

Media Centers and IP-TV capabilities are being built into little boxes (like Apple’s) and right into TVs (Sony and Google TV) and running apps and widgets and gadgets that could easily turn TVs and commercial monitors into what look like pretty typical digital signage network displays – with news and weather widgets overlaid on screens, targeted ads and so on.

But organizing all that into something meaningful is a big chore. Companies like SignageLive in the UK are already putting the pieces in places to make its  services a Google Android app that could be activate just as others apps are activated on phones and iPads.

We also already see some software companies in include widgets as part of their built-in content offer, and if and when someone develops a true content marketplace, it will be possible to simply grab apps and widgets to build a program up.

Interactive

This is a British company called ScreenReach that specifically builds mobile apps that interactive with digital screens, for things like games and polls. Companies like Boston’s Locamoda and Aerva have also done mobile to screen interactive apps. More basic touchscreen apps are done by a lot of companies, but I’d argue it’s a bolt-on for many of those, and not at the core of the offer.

Integrated support for interactivity is growing increasingly fundamental to an offer. Touch is not going away now, nor are technologies such as enhanced bar codes. Networks need to be able to engage, react and measure, and CMS systems that stay current will align with this.

Yes, there are lots of circumstances when interactive will make no sense, but being the CMS provider that doesn’t do interactive is not a particularly strong point of differentiation.

Media RSS

Developed by Yahoo originally, these are text feeds … but juiced up with multimedia. This technology automates and significantly improves the presentation of content like news and weather. It also allows end-users how to create, publish and manage their own feeds for their purposes.

This slide shows ScreenFeed’s excellent use of MediaRSS. CNN is providing a feed for LG’s new SignNet service. SignageLive uses a feed from SkyTV in the UK. I believe the sector will see more of this.

Google

Will Google ever announce a pure-play digital signage product?

Probably not. In their world, digital signage is too small and unfocused.

But they probably don’t need to have a declared product to have a toolset that does much or all of the digital signage job. They have simplified online static and video ad production tools, and among a steadily building list of offers, a targeted TV Ads service and their own stripped-down OS and browser. They also own something called YouTube.

Mobile

I am in my early 50s and while I get much of the social thing, and use it, a lot of the location-based check-in stuff eludes me.

However, there are some things that have strong, obvious business cases and tie-ins to Digital Signage.

This woman is using an app called ShopKick to scan products in stores and build up loyalty points. This is one of endless location-based services out there and this one is particularly aimed at retailing.

A tiny handful of digital signage companies are working with mobile applications. Like ScreenScape with its FourSquare integration. Nanonation and Starmount Systems have apps integrations. Ignoring millions of smartphones and apps that make getting information easier would be a mistake, and the smart companies are figuring out how what they do ties in.

Social

We’re now thoroughly in a real-time world, and tools like Facebook and Twitter are how people communicate and distribute information. We’ve seen companies like Locamoda provide tools and integrate their capabilities to display Tweets and Flickr images. I have chatted extensively with a company in LA that has patented filtering technology CMS providers can integrate to automatically moderate user-generated content streams.

UGC streams understandably scare the pants off people and human moderation is costly. If it can be safely moderated through algorithms, that’s interesting stuff.

Adobe

Can you use Flash or not in digital signage apps without licensing?

Big gray area and has been for years. Adobe has promised an unambiguous position statement on this, but that was last year. I know a CTO for a CMS company that has had lengthy discussions with Adobe as recently as two weeks ago, and they are telling him Adobe’s Flash Web Player is not allowed in any digital signage application unless it has been licensed.

This applies to CMS companies (many) that run the Web Player that is used in a browser and the ActiveX version as well.

Wouldn’t it be swell if Adobe just laid it out there?

HTML 5

So does that mean a lot of companies will cut over to HTML5, taking Apple’s point of view about Adobe and Flash? Well, maybe, but …

HTML5 as a standard has been around a while, but the authoring tools are limited and right now it is a geek tool. The creative community works in the Adobe Suite and loves Flash. One answer – create in Flash, output to MPEG4 video.

The attraction of HTML5 is, in part, the stability. Flash runs PCs hard, and leaks memory. HTML is at least thought to be easier, and requires no licenses. It also crosses browsers and Operating Systems, and nothing needs to be installed.

The Cloud

We will see a lot more integration of CMS offers with Internet cloud-based, high scalable and open web services. More and more companies are realizing there are great tools out there that they can plug into and integrate, as opposed to build.

We’re seeing companies integrating with ad-planning front ends and content creation tools and libraries. Companies like Rise Vision are re-inventing themselves as cloud-based, right down to using online support systems that do the bulk of their work with e-commerce companies.

You will see companies coming out with more and more bundled, integrated offers that increase their capabilities without building it. In fairly short order all kinds of devices will be IP-connected.

This is no longer about one central point pushing out content to a distinct set of nodes. Potentially, everything is intertwined.

Crowded Field

The problem with integration, cloud-based services and open, flexible software architecture is it gives more companies an idea that they can add a little of this and tweak a bit of that, and join the race. A big trend I am seeing in digital signage platforms now is white-label products being introduced by companies like AMX and Polycom, among others. Not to mention all the display guys.

While consolidation is happening, as is natural selection, the numbers might not really be shrinking as yet more firms come in.

Looking ahead

As with most industries that build up to many, it will thin out considerably. You will see software companies doing a far better job of defining what they do and their field of play.  Some pretty big names will drop off. There will be consolidation. Offers will get highly specialized so that the companies can retain their pricing model.

Other offers well be far more rounded, layering in third-party and complementary technologies. There will also be a new gush of companies who are active other areas, but have most or all of the components to deliver a digital signage solution. Burstpoint, for example, is a streaming company that has its eye on this sector and offers DS as something it can also do, as opposed to all it can do.

So what does all this mean? The sector has in some respects changed very little in the past five years. The pace of that change will really crank up over the next two years.

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I haven’t worked for a software company for 18 months or something, so I am slightly removed from the action. But that also means I am not working in a bubble. People are a lot more open to telling you what’s up – surprise, surprise – when you are not selling against them.

This isn’t the last word on this stuff, and as noted, represents a pretty high level overview and misses, I’m sure, lotsa things. So what do you think? Use the comments and add your thoughts.

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