Your Network: No Place For Consumer Tech

Synopsis: Beware the allure of cheap consumer tech to power your digital signage network. It just might cost you more than in the long run.

While preparing for a session at DSE 2016 in Las Vegas, I stumbled upon an insight that has continued to resonate with me since DSE: when large companies attempt to commercialize consumer technologies in the digital signage space, the result is generally lemming bait, disappointment or abject failure. It should be apparent to most people that the requirements of commercial users are different than  those of consumers.  Yet the very same digital signage gurus who correctly espouse commercial displays over consumer displays seem to not apply the same logic to the rest of the digital signage technology stack. Not even to consumer-derivative displays (more on that below). I shake my head at the sponsored groupthink behavior that passes for crowd-sourced wisdom in our business.

At the risk of repetitive stress injury, the Sisyphean task of shining some light on a few examples may be helpful.

 

By any objective measure, Android, pitched as a game changer, has to be rated as a large disappointment in the digital signage space. This mobile OS is hugely successful for tablets and smartphones, and can be serviceable in certain use cases in traditional digital signage. By way of disclosure, our company has an Android product, but only developed it and optimized it for a very specific use case, and have chosen not to market it for generalized use cases. The alternatives are simply far superior. The fact is that large format displays are not tablets, and operating a far flung network of digital signs is not the same as supporting mobile devices. I have personally spoken with several Android users who are actively pursuing a move away from Android, sunk costs be damned. Lack of reliability, costly in-field upgrades, and limited remote capabilities are the biggest complaints, and that is just for the software. On the hardware side, people got carried away with low cost devices, and found out in a Gumpian way that cheap is as cheap does. Replacing cheap Android boxes with commercial grade players puts one in a class of devices in which Android becomes the least attractive OS option.

System on Chip (SoC) continues to turn up like a bad penny. The offering grew out of the world of Smart TVs, wherein a low power chip embedded in consumer televisions enabled the integration of widgets and apps in a manner similar to the smartphone world. It is pretty effective in the living room. The factories producing the subassemblies of these consumer displays are in most cases the same ones producing subassemblies for commercial displays. It is expensive to retool a manufacturing line to make minor changes. Say, for example, removing a chip and associated wiring. As a result, a manufacturing efficiency decision to leave the chips in spawned the marketing requirement to hail SoC as a disruptive new idea in commercial displays, specifically those destined for use in digital signage. Millions of dollars were spent building the case for it. But here is the truth: SoC for digital signage is a square peg in a round hole. Despite the fact that there is no evidence of a serious IT organization or a network of scale anywhere deciding to use SoC for digital signage, it has continued to be marketed very aggressively… by display manufacturers. You know, the software, content and network operations experts. The list of manufacturers who have jumped on the SoC bandwagon has grown, as has the wide array of non-standard and substandard development and deployment environments. Still, the lack of commercial market demand remains a constant. To be fair, I will stipulate that single store pizza shops and houses of worship may find this approach to be cost effective. However, network owners and organizations with people who are actually paid to make technology decisions have been able to see past the hype, high pressure sales tactics and tired rhetoric. In the old days there was a truism: “No one ever got fired for choosing IBM”. In our space, few if any have risked their employment to choose SoC. And there are plenty of reasons why.

The latest entries to our space from the consumer world are Chrome/Chromebox and HDMI sticks. Both share the consumer legacies of SoC and Android; both lead with low cost; both are marketed by giant companies; and both are eagerly touted and written about by agents of said companies. Chrome is of course brought to you by the same people who own Android and have quietly moved away from it in our space. It has been aggressively marketed by the mothership, as executives parachute in to prop up pitches of startup software companies, making them appear to be more legitimate than they might actually be. Their end game? Unknown. Are buyers looking at the world through rose colored Glass, or is it true that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Time will tell. As for HDMI sticks, it is still early, and there are many different offerings.  The good news is that x86 technology has now been miniaturized and its cost curve continues downward. But the HDMI stick is very clearly a consumer toy, and commercial application of the miniaturization that underlies it would be more viable as either a removable and upgradeable board element (OPS, anyone?) or as the guts of a small media player that can be properly cooled and securely deployed, among other benefits.

In general, these attempts at commercialization aim to leverage the economies of scale gained in the consumer space and position the technology as disruptive by way of low cost of acquisition. The next step seems to be to market the thought that what works for Netflix watchers, Facebook stalkers, gamers and web crawlers will be a no brainer for digital signage. Sadly, this process always finds receptive audiences in both the vendor and end user communities. On the vendor side, the need to differentiate, to be perceived as cutting edge and the lure of riding the marketing budget of a larger company is often more seductive than common sense. On the end user side, it is almost universally about cost: every network operator wants to reduce the capital cost of deploying a digital signage network. In reality, that cost has been declining since the first CRT  monitor was deployed with a desktop PC, and is likely to continue to decline steadily. But the chance to invoke a time warp and scoot past the natural progression of Moore’s Law and the commoditization of various elements of digital signage is often too shiny an object to resist. As a result,  a digital signage truism is often ignored in the rush to optimize an ROI model:

The cost of acquisition is not the same as the cost of ownership!

It is very easy to feel the pain of network owners faced with a technology buying decision. The capital investments required are significant, even as they continue to drop. Every ten dollars removed from the cost of equipping each location can change the projected financials of a network, at least on a spreadsheet. Yet the real world seldom plays out like an Excel model. There are tradeoffs one must make with open eyes if the choice is to pursue the lowest cost of acquisition. There is now enough history in our industry to learn from, and buyers and CFOs need to learn lessons from their predecessors and peers.  Take note of the Android users who have seen 30% of their devices offline on any given day, or those that have to roll trucks to reboot players or to upgrade/patch software. Learn from users of proprietary environments who are hobbled as their content strategies evolve. Have empathy for the support costs of network owners with mixed versions of the “same” technologies and operating systems in the field. Recognize that the life of a commercial display will greatly outstrip the useful life of any chipset permanently embedded inside it. Understand that there is a cost to being a guinea pig for new products, both hardware and software. Being a pioneer has very real risks.

It is hard to admit that prior decisions may have been less than perfect. It often takes courage and diligence to make the case for patience or a higher cost choice. But it is dangerous to ignore the tradeoffs of supporting a low cost path. Vendors and end users alike are being duped into believing that mission critical applications can be robustly supported by consumer technologies. The digital signage industry learned the folly of choosing consumer displays long ago. It is time that we recognize the same for the other elements of the technology stack.

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