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Is Convergence In Close Proximity?

While the storm system now known as Icepocalypse stranded would-be flyers across most of the east coast leading up to Valentine’s Day, the majority of the digital signage world was enjoying shirtsleeve weather in the Nevada desert at Digital Signage Expo 2014. It was a whirlwind three days, with the progression of events and activities unfolding as expected. As always, the folks from Exponation did a terrific and professional job of organization and execution. I did not have the time (thankfully) to walk the entire floor, so I will leave the reviews of what is new and what isn’t to others. The rumors and gossip were as prevalent (and much more interesting) than the endless press releases. My own observation from it all is that leaders who have built and executed a great strategy, and more importantly focused upon creating a great company, have prospered. Those who have prioritized financial strategies and exits over customers, or have succumbed to opportunism have generally found the brass ring to be out of their reach. That will become self-evident soon enough. Or maybe not soon enough.

At our own booth, we engaged in a number of very interesting conversations, and not just about the same old thing. People responded extremely well to the notion that small is the new big, and many new ideas and use cases came out of those discussions. We also talked a lot about Near Field Communications (NFC), something that has been discussed a few times (Herehere, and here) in this space. In fact, (self-promotion alert) we had tremendous response to our demonstration of the ability to synchronize the behavior of an NFC tag (or group of tags associated with a media player) to the content displayed on screen. When a movie trailer was displayed, a tap of the NFC tag drove the smartphone to Fandango’s site to check local show times and purchase tickets. When a restaurant piece ran, the same NFC tag delivered a coupon for free Mozzarella Sticks to the user. A generic spot for our company appeared, and the same tag drove the user to a web form for more information. People from a variety of networks very quickly realized the value of being able to manage the behavior of a low cost NFC tag. Each came up with specific ideas of how that could be applied in their business. In the end, the ability to dynamically connect on-screen engagement with hand-held computing was an eye opener, and the opportunity to collect very valuable analytical data seemed to be the clincher.

No, NFC is not new, as evidenced by the dates of the above-referenced posts. And yes, until Apple embraces NFC (iPhone 6, please?), the true tipping point of usage is unlikely to materialize. Nevertheless, it is being increasingly adopted, especially outside of North America, and the rate is accelerating. Ironically, the clamor over Apple’s iBeacon and other BLE approaches may be helping to bring people around to NFC. Despite some apparent security issues, many of the Apple acolytes believe that iBeacon may be Apple’s “answer” to NFC, but the jury is decidedly still out on that. In fact, if it becomes as pervasive as some expect, the default setting for most people’s smartphone Bluetooth will very likely become “off”. Here’s a big reason why:

Handbill

Here, take one of these.
Photo credit: Mead Gruver/AP

Like the unavoidable, annoying purveyors of escort service handbills on the Las Vegas Strip (what is it with that slapping thing they do?), iBeacons everywhere will become tiresome. If you walk by a group of these analog spammers (iBarkers?) you will notice all the handbills that passersby have dropped on the ground. The only way to opt out of the handbill guy is to stare off into a place above his head and pretend you don’t see him… or his eight colleagues within a 10 yard walk. While many applications of iBeacon will be clever and useful, the thought of being bombarded as you walk down a street or through a mall is chilling. It will be like checking your spam folder in the morning for the overnight offers from Eastern Europe. Parenthetically, the spammers have featured a great many offers of Russian brides ever since the Sochi games began. You can’t say they don’t try to make their content relevant!

The fact is that NFC is 100% opt-in by definition: you see something of interest, and you initiate the transaction. This sets it apart from the BLE approaches. A great infographic published on MobilePaymentsToday.com provides good insight on all of the distinctions between the two technologies. It is well worth having a look. I should take a moment and give credit to Steve Gurley, with whom I have had philosophical differences over the years, especially with regard to the future of digital signage. Steve is now founder and CEO at Pyrim Technologies, where he is able to channel his passion for all things mobile, and he contributed to the infographic. Nice job, Steve… and we are still here. :)

I talk so often about digital signage being a one-to-many vehicle that I occasionally wonder if I am getting senile and repetitive. But it is true, especially with large format screens, that digital signage is generally meant to engage many people at one time. The ability to have a call to action on that digital display create an opt-in, one-to-one extension of the engagement on consumers’ own smartphones  is not new as a point of potential convergence. However, the ability to deploy NFC tags once and link them repeatedly to on-screen content in real time is potentially transformative. It creates opportunities and solves problems.

In the world of digital signage, mobile convergence is something that is talked about as often as industry consolidation is. Both have seemed inevitable for some time now, and both appear to be picking up steam.  I’m all for it. If problems are getting solved, then it will be a good thing for everyone.

There are 3 comments .

Steve Gurley

Ken, knock me down with a feather! Thanks for the objectivity and the shout out. FYI, be sure to read the companion white paper, it goes into much more detail on the differences between the iBeacon (BLE) and NFC. Here’s the link. http://bit.ly/1if4WZJ

Regarding the future of digital signage, I’ve always been a proponent. For years, however, I’ve been raising the read flag that certain sectors would be (and are) seriously threatened by mobile. I explain this a recent blog post: http://bit.ly/1adnwQr

I have also been a huge advocate for convergence. Shoot, when I was at Symon, we were controlling screens with cell phones, extending digital signage content to smartphones, using DS content management systems to deliver location based content to smartphones and managing content to NFC-based digital signage engagements for years. Before I went to work for Symon, we were filing patents on mobile/digital signage convergence dating back to 2005. It’s interesting to see the industry just catching on to what’s been transpiring for many, many years.

While I have historically focused on convergence in general, there is a new revolution underway within mobile that stands to further threaten the viability of certain sectors of digital signage, you’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks/months. I only hope this time the DS industry pays attention rather than wait until this new trends starts to eat its lunch.

Again, thanks for the shout out. Oh…. two last points: 1) it’s good to see you advocating convergence!!! 2) Don’t count out NFC, there are some micro trends occurring that will change the landscape and prospects for NFC adoption… regardless of what Apple does.

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Ken Goldberg

Thanks for the comment, Steve. believe me, I am not counting out NFC by a long shot. In fact, I got called a dinosaur today by a very ardent defender of iBeacon for caring about privacy. I wonder if he feels the same way about his liberty. He did have a valid point when he said that iBeacon was technically opt-in, as long as you have already downloaded the relevant app, turned on locations services and activated Bluetooth. Yup I need more apps so others can collect data from me. If I am going to be a dinosaur, I will choose to be a TRex with a taste for lamb!

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Steve Gurley

Ken, yes, I saw the exchange between you two. You should know that his comments are very representative of what’s being said in nearly every consumer facing industry/sector on the planet. In all of my 20 years in mobile, I’ve never seen any technology (outside of smartphones) generating so much excitement and buzz as I have with iBeacon and BLE. These technologies connected with social media, programatic ad-buying and ad-retargeting are whipping the market into a frenzy like none I’ve ever seen. People are pouring money into this sector like it’s going out of style. This is truly turning into the gold rush of this decade.

If you haven’t done so, you should read my paper on how the mobile wallet (coupled with mobile marketing and mobile payments) supported by technologies such as BLE will impact merchandising and ad-funded digital signage. I also talk about how the digital signage industry can become a part of this. You can find the paper here: http://bit.ly/1bzYRVj

Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss what’s happening across the mobile industry, how it’s going to impact the digital signage industry and the opportunities connected therewith.

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