Digital Signage – The Browser Takes Over!

InternetThe browser is slowly taking over as the user interface and connectivity platform for Unified Communications (UC). Voice, video and content sharing are all available from your browser, whenever you want. There is no longer a need for special applications to be installed on your devices allowing you to communicate with others. Less plugins and add-ons allow the browser to enable these types of programs and more native browser code enables the applications to work across browsers. UC technology is moving to the browser, this trend is gaining momentum and it makes sense.

Using a browser makes it easier for businesses to connect with consumers right from their web pages without having to worry about having an app like Skype or Facetime installed on the user’s device. For users, having the browser as the common tool for accessing applications, web content and UC makes life simpler because there is no need for specialized applications for each task.

Digital Signage is Moving from a Player Based to an Open Web Based Architecture

In a previous blog on the Next Phase of the Digital Signage Market, I discussed how the 2nd phase of the corporate digital signage market is characterized by the ability of the digital display platform (DDP – an evolution from just digital signage) to be open.

Phase 1 of the digital signage market on the other hand, was characterized by what I call a Player Based Architecture (PBA). The development of this market was described in this blog. The key feature of this architecture is the focus on the player that is attached locally to each screen. The player software and often the player hardware are proprietary. This approach solved a lot of IT scarcity issues as the market for digital signage developed, but today this approach has limitations within the enterprise that are not easily managed across the organization.

The Player Based Architecture has led to:

  1. A fragmented marketplace with 100’s of solutions confusing buyers looking for a corporate solution
  2. Departmental decisions being made for digital signage solutions and corporations who now find themselves with numerous digital signage providers that cannot be reconciled into a single platform
  3. Almost no interoperability between players and content systems from one vendor to another. They are totally isolated silos.
  4. The user departments mentioned above in #2 wanting to move the support of the digital signage solution they purchased from their department to IT, because it is an IT solution
  5. Corporate customers who want to leverage the network of digital displays across their organization as a single platform that is capable of digital signage and much more

The Browser is a Key Piece of Unifying IP Technologies

An open digital display platform (DDP) that is IP based allows customers to use the DDP for digital signage and much more:

  1. You can switch from digital signage being displayed on the digital screens to any other content – easily, centrally, without additional hardware, cables or manual intervention at the screen location
  2. Other IT platforms can easily integrate to the DDP
    1. Live streams – Telepresence, broadcast, webcasts, webcams, etc.
    2. Internet of Things systems – Security cameras, fire alarm systems, etc. ( here is a blog by Geoff Mulligan, “Interoperability Is Key to Unlocking the Internet of Everything” which underscores this point)
    3. Live database updates – SQL, Oracle, etc.
    4. Potentially thousands of web widgets and content sources developed by hundreds of companies
    5. Any other Internet compatible content

Looking at what is happening in IT from an architectural point-of-view, the browser is becoming the focal point and the common platform for:

  1. User interface
  2. Applications
  3. Common development languages and tools

A web based architecture (WBA) makes a real open system.  The browser and IP are the unifying technologies.

More and more technologies are moving to the browser. Unified Communications (UC) is a perfect example. In a recent blog on Skype and Skype for Business coming together, I wrote about how Microsoft also seems to be heading in the direction of the browser despite their massive base of Skype application users. UC is moving to the browser, via WebRTC. The browser is where the market is heading, and by taking advantage of this trend, you will simplify your systems, save money and speed deployment.

An Open, Web Based Architecture

The transition to a digital signage open, web architecture means using the browser as the player software, instead of proprietary software. Moving to a web based architecture has lots of advantages:

  1. Players – Your choice of player widens substantially and costs go down
  2. Capabilities – As the browser manufacturers enable more and more features within them, programmers in turn, can build richer capabilities within their browser code
  3. Browser choice – software that runs in a browser can easily run on any standard browser – Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.
  4. Compatibility with other technologies that use a web based architecture, e.g. UC, Internet of Things. This allows what were formerly islands of technology to easily connect with each other.
  5. Improvements to the browser are occurring constantly and cost the consumer nothing at all.  When the browser software clients are improved, updates are easily deployed.

YouTube

Let’s use a very simple example to illustrate the freedom and capability that a WBA can provide over a PBA.  Almost everyone is familiar with YouTube.

What if you wanted to play a YouTube video as part of your digital signage Show? If you were using a PBA, you would first, have to figure out if the player software would support playing a YouTube video. Many would not. But the progressive PBAs have built some capability into their player software to handle some web content.

Not any web content, but some web content. Player software is not a browser.  It is a custom made application. The app may have enabled some browser like capability within the player application, but it certainly would not have the full capability of a browser. An analogy would be, Microsoft enabling some Internet Explorer capability within Word. They could certainly enable some browser functionality in Word, but Word would never be like Internet Explorer or Edge, Microsoft’s new browser.

What happens when you click on a YouTube video on your PC or mobile?

The video begins to play – right away, and the video stream starts to buffer while you are watching the video. This same simple process does not happen on your digital sign with a PBA, assuming that it is capable of supporting a YouTube video. The PBA must first stream the entire YouTube video to the player software client. Then the player software has to incorporate the YouTube video into it and initiate the play of the new Show that contains the YouTube video. This whole process can take a while.

In a Web Based Architecture, the browser is the player software. So when you tell a Show to start playing a YouTube video it does so immediately just like playing a YouTube video from a browser on your PC. With a WBA, you can also:

  1. Update just a part of the Show with new content without having to first stream and then restart the Show
  2. You can immediately start playing a new Show without having to first stream and then restart the new Show
  3. Play any kind of Internet content without requiring modifications to the player software
  4. Track playback of any content on the player using simple cookies and audit trails
  5. Cache content on the player using the latest Application Cache features of HTML5, to continue playing even when the network fails

Your Greatest Strength, Is Your Greatest Weakness

The greatest strength of a WBA for digital displays is that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and others will continue to develop and enable the browser with more functionality and capability. This will make a WBA architecture even more powerful over time and since browser software is free, you won’t have to pay for any of these improvements.

This can also be a disadvantage, because you are at the mercy of the companies who own the browsers to continue to enable them with greater functionality. In the first phase of the digital signage market the WBA was at a disadvantage, because browser functionality was limited and so was network capacity and availability. Those limitations are no longer there, but each of the different browsers has its own quirks. You can mitigate the quirks as you become more familiar with options and tools.

I believe that the digital signage market will become dominated by solutions that are based on web standards and Internet Protocol. That is where other technology is heading and digital signage needs to interact with these technologies in order to continue evolving as a platform.

The Next Phase of the Digital Signage Market

In my last blog I wrote about the “Technology Market Lifecycle of Digital Signage”. The blog described the evolution of the first phase of the Digital Signage market which is just starting to commoditize. And just as Phase 1 starts to commoditize, Phase 2 of the market is just getting started.

Phase 2 is logical extension of the first phase and there is overlap, especially with the different adoption postures that customers have. But how do we know we are at a secondary phase of the market? A new phase is never defined by new technologies but by the customer’s needs and how technology can meet them. We stepped through the customer need and subsequent customer questions in a technology lifecycle, as those questions relate to the digital signage market, in the last blog and you can see the graphical depiction in the image below.

Technology market phases

In this blog I am going to write about the first two customer questions that define Phase 2:

  • Does this work? (Can the customer need be met?)
  • Does this solve my business problem?

Does this work?

What is the customer need in this phase of the market?

Customers with digital signage networks are asking the question: Can I use my existing network of displays to do other things? They don’t want to stop using them for digital signage but they do want to do more than play content files on their network of digital displays. That network of digital displays can be leveraged to do a lot more, and some of the things they want to do are pretty critical.

What exactly do they want to do with their existing and growing network of digital displays? They want to use the displays:

  • For instant Emergency Broadcast notification
  • For Town Hall communications, allowing an executive to take over the digital display network and to speak live on the displays
  • To connect other technologies in their buildings to their display platform and communicate status, feeds and other information
  • To play internal advertisements or to make money by playing other advertiser’s messages
  • To easily display content from other corporate technology platforms and from any Internet source (I will address this in my next blog)

Each one of these items is a topic onto itself, and I hope to dedicate a blog to each of them, but for now, here is a high level overview.

Emergency Broadcast

In the event of an emergency – a fire, bad weather, bomb threat, a shooter, and other emergency situations, there is an increasing requirement to immediately take over a single existing digital display network or multiple independent digital display networks and unify them into a single emergency broadcast. In the case of some Higher Ed institutions, this requirement is becoming more important than the digital signage itself. Studies show that students on campus pay attention to the digital displays. In fact, 96% notice digital signage immediately and can recall its content. And when something happens, Emergency Ops need the ability to instantly take over what is playing on the digital screens because seconds count.

The digital signage network is one of the most effective ways to communicate in the event of an emergency to in-building occupants or the on-campus community.

Town Hall Communications

Most digital signs are placed in common areas where people congregate or pass by, e.g. lobbies, foyers, cafeterias, lunch rooms, atriums, hallways, branch locations, etc. Corporations, government and educational institutions have a constant need for their top executives to communicate to their constituents live. It isn’t economical or practical to assemble everyone in one location but you can assemble them in the common areas of their work locations. If you can turn your digital signage network into a live broadcast network without having to buy a lot of extra equipment or having to switch the equipment sending the signal to the digital display, then you have a really viable solution for Town Hall updates.

Connecting to Other Building Technologies

The amount of technology that is making its way into everything we own or come in contact with is increasing every year. Buildings are no exception. They are filled with many different systems that have an increasingly higher proportion of digital technologies in them – fire alarms, security cameras, door locks, lights, HVAC, etc. Historically these are islands of technology and they do not communicate to each other, but as they become more digital, they are transforming to IP technology and if they have an IP address they can talk to each other. This is a big part of the Internet of Things (IoT) story.

Digital signage is one of the best ways to communicate information from other building systems. Both:

  • Status updates, e.g. real time energy savings or building maintenance updates
  • Real time information, e.g. security camera feeds on the digital sign

Advertising

Some organizations play their own ads on their digital signage displays but others are willing to play other people’s ads. For those who don’t mind playing other people’s ads, what easier way to use your digital display platform than to make some money from it.

Surveillance

Surveillance

What do All These New Requirements Have in Common?

Some of these items aren’t new, but they are either being done in a less than optimal way or it is just too difficult and costly to implement them based on the digital signage platform that is in place. Very few existing digital signage networks deliver these kinds of capabilities except in very rudimentary ways. The player based architectures that were so successful in Phase 1 of the digital signage market just do not provide the integration flexibility required to interface with all the other technologies.

A new architecture is required to give the digital signage network the capability to easily adapt itself to all these new requirements in an elegant way. An architecture based on web technologies, or as I call it – a Web Based Architecture.

The Ability to Easily Integrate – Solves My Business Problem

Phase 2 of the Digital Signage Market Technology Adoption Curve, is just beginning. Phase 2 technologies will help users solve their need to integrate their digital display network with other technologies to be able to use them in the ways that they want. To make them a platform for different types of communication which can be triggered to switch content manually or by automated triggers.

With a player based architecture (PBA) it is very difficult to do all these things, but with a web based architecture (WBA) all this is possible. Phase 2 of a market takes us to a new curve with new technology delivering new capabilities. Here is what that market evolution looks like for a technology that has re-invented itself.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 11.06.49 AM

It is the same curve starting all over again. And for the digital signage market it is based on a new architecture that can easily INTEGRATE to other technologies.

Easy Integration:

  • To web content, e.g. YouTube, Social Media, other live sites
  • To allow triggering of content – manual or automated, for Emergency management and more
  • For IoT connectivity
  • To enable Town Hall forums
  • And more

In my next digital signage blog, I will contrast in more detail, the Player Based Architecture of Phase 1 of the market with the Web Based Architecture of Phase 2 of the market.  I hope to demonstrate the flexibility the WBA provides and difference it makes.

The Technology Market Lifecycle of Digital Signage

A History of Digital Signage

In one of my recent blogs, I pointed out that Enterprise Video Communications will be the fastest growing segment of Internet traffic over the next 5 years. Video communications is made up of a number of communications tools, both real-time and on demand. Digital Signage is one of these communications tools and according to the IDC is expected to grow at a 35.7% compound average growth rate.

Digital Signage has been more of a “nice to have” technology than a “mission critical” technology, but that is quickly changing. Digital Signage is evolving from its current Phase 1 technology evolution curve, to its Phase 2 technology evolution curve, by becoming a Digital Display Platform that is capable of much more than content communication.

It will take a few blogs to give you the entire picture of the current state of the digital signage market, so with this first blog, I will describe the first phase of the evolution in Digital Signage – a historical perspective that brings us to the current state of Phase 1.   This perspective is critical to not only understanding how we got here, but in subsequent blogs, what the new Phase 2 technologies look like and how to distinguish them from Phase 1 technologies.

First, a high level definition of what Digital Signage is and the list of the components that make up a Digital Signage solution. Wikipedia says that digital signs are a sub segment of signage, and that they “use technologies such as LCD, LED and Projection to display content such as digital images, video, streaming media, and information and can be found in public spaces, transportation systems, museums, stadiums, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, and corporate buildings etc.”

What is a Digital Signage solution made up of?

A Digital Signage solution is made up of many different components coming together. If one or more of the components falls short, it can jeopardize the success of the entire initiative. The different components include:

  • Hardware – server(s), displays, players and other sundry connection or signal distribution components
  • Software – server and client (player) side
  • Network and/or signal distribution
  • Project management
  • Physical installation
  • Content creation
  • Ongoing support

With this brief definition of Digital Signage and what a Digital Signage solution is made of, let’s dig into how this technology has evolved.

Historical view of the Digital Signage Market Development

Every technology goes through different stages of development as it comes out into the marketplace. Frank Lynn & Associates have created the following graph to show the stages of a technology’s lifecycle and the key customer question that each stage seeks to answer.

Technology Market Lifecycle: Frank Lynn & Associates

technology market lifecycle

Stage 1: Does this work? – Content Show Creation

Digital Signage technology first came to market in the mid-1990s and the Scala solution was one of the first, if not the first, Digital Signage solution in the market. The problem that the solution providers were trying to solve was to make a software solution, that would allow a user to build a customized “Show” that could then be played smoothly on a digital display. The Show would be built using image and video files that would then be played on a screen just like a TV show or commercial.

Stage 1 of the Technology Lifecycle, is where a technology either solves the first problem or the technology dies. With Digital Signage the software suppliers were able to create the software to allow users to create and play a show locally on a screen.

The show could be created, but now it had to be able to operate in a commercial environment.

Stage 2: Can you solve my business problem? – Content Playability

The challenge was to make the show play at many different locations, on an affordable player (PC) that had enough power (this is the time when Windows XP ruled) to play the content files without having the playback of the show be “jerky”. It had to play smoothly and without a glitch.  Just like watching a TV Show.  Oh – and the content had to be delivered to the players on networks of 15-20 years ago.

The Digital Signage suppliers solved the business problem by doing a number of things:

  • They created custom hardware players that had powerful and fast processors with enough muscle to play “fat” or “heavy” content files and Show effects like tickers running across a screen which are very compute intensive, as they require the image to be re-drawn on the screen every time the image moves over 1 pixel
  • They built customized player software which enabled local caching and playing of content
  • They built compression algorithms for the content enabling it to be sent over the networks more efficiently and de-compressed at the players

The solution providers built an architecture, which was based on working around the scarcity of IT resources – player power and limited network capacity. It was brilliant!  And that architecture continues to dominate the first Phase of the Digital Signage market.

Stage 3: Can you make this easy to buy, deploy and support? – Digital Signage Deployment Manageability

The DS suppliers had solved the first two problems and they now had to address the next market problem, i.e. making their solution easy to buy, deploy and support.

They worked with resellers and integrators, especially in the AV market, who understood the inherent AV nature of the hardware requirements. These resellers worked with their local customers to sell, deploy and support the solutions.  But the DS suppliers also had to build IT manageability into their solution so that a network of 10, 100, or 1,000+ digital screens could be managed remotely.

These remote management capabilities included:

  • The ability to see what was playing on any screen
  • To determine if the show was playing
  • To monitor the network status and;
  • The ability to re-boot players remotely

Finally, after the major problems had been resolved and the technology continued to mature, customers demanded better price performance and new competitors sought to differentiate their solutions by doing things better and cheaper.

Stage 4: Can you reduce my purchase cost? – Agnostic, Low cost players

intel comput stickI think most readers have heard of Moore’s law, which says that the power of processor technology will double roughly every 2 years. Networks are also much faster and more robust today than they were 5-10 years ago. The ironic thing is that the “scarcity” problems that had to be worked around in Stage 2 are becoming obsolete in Stage 4 of the market. Today you can buy agnostic hardware players for the Windows, Linux or other operating environments that are just as powerful as the proprietary players that were created in Stage 2 of the market.

The image to the left is an Intel Compute Stick. It is very much like a USB stick, and it connects directly into a USB port, but it is a bit longer and wider than a standard USB stick. It sells for between $100-$200 depending on features and whether you want a Windows 8 OS loaded on it or Ubuntu. This player and many others like it, are eliminating the requirement for the proprietary players in Stage 2 of the market and bringing the player price point down by a factor of up to 10 times.

When you combine these players with a Digital Signage software solution that does not charge player software licenses you save even more money.

Here is the same Technology Lifecycle Market graph with the different Digital Signage stages overlaid on top.

technology lifecycle digital signage stages

What happens to the Technology at the end of Stage 4?

The market will either commoditize, or the market will evolve to a second phase, where the same curve starts all over again, based on new market requirements and the technology that meets those market requirements.

This is what I see happening in the Digital Signage market. Stay tuned and learn more about Phase 2 of the market.