The 2012 Digital Signage Expo was by all accounts the most successful in its 9-year history. Pre-show conferences and events were well attended and well reviewed. The exhibit hall was busy, and the huge slate of sessions got generally good reviews. No doubt there were a couple of snoozers in there that I heard about, but evaluations and continuous improvement ought to handle that. Here are some thoughts as I reflect upon last week.

The Crowd. I experienced it first hand, and heard several others say the same thing: the level of sophistication of the end users at DSE this year was well above past shows. In the past, we have spent hours educating people on the fly in order to be able to begin a normal sales dialogue. That was not the case last week. We were invariably talking to people who had thought through what they wanted to accomplish with digital signage, and who had good, probing questions to ask. There were fewer entrepreneurial network builders, and more corporate reconnaisance teams. That was great to see, and I will optimistically call that both a sign of maturity for our industry and one of acceptance of digital signage’s relevance at the corporate level. I participated in one session, the Content Lightning Round, which had no presentation slides, only audience questions for a panel of four experts (well, three experts plus me). The questions and shared pain points were consistently advanced. Many focused on how to deal with organizational challenges that impact content strategy. It was both fun and refreshing to have a session be a conversation. Kudos to Pat Hellberg for conceiving it and herding the cats. Bottom line, I don’t think folks positioned as experts are going to get away much longer with high level rehashes of the obvious, or with renaming old ideas. And that is a good thing.

The Glass. A couple of people mentioned to me that they were growing tired of display companies muddying the waters with regard to digital signage software. Since I grew tired of that years ago, those words were music to my ears. I completely understand the need for display manufacturers to have some kind of low end software (e.g. freeware) to address a certain segment of their market. But it is hard to find anything resembling a successful move into the realm of real solutions. The roadside is littered with failed attempts at going beyond the basics. Planar tried acquiring a real software company, CoolSign, and could never integrate it into their core business. LG has tried rebranding a light version of an established package, and by all reports that has not exactly taken the market by storm. And of course the travails (and my opinion of) the VUKUNET adventure by NEC are well documented.  Here’s an idea for all the code-minded people at display manufacturers: why don’t you all go to lunch and come up with a standard way to manage an RS-232 interface with a screen? That would fall under the headings of core offering and value added.

The Buzz. There was generally less grumbling about the lack of capital available to various sectors of the industry and more talk of how capital might be applied. I am not sure that means that there is tons of money ready to flow, but I do think it means that both investors and industry players are thinking more strategically about what is next. That would be a positive.

One of the dominant memes at DSE was menu boards. There were so many on display that it appears that many people view this as the next great frontier. I am sure that providers love the idea that it requires lots of hardware, provides scale and also is not dependent upon an ad supported model to get funded. Without doubt, there are deals to be made, but the urgency to make those deals has subsided a bit with some slack appearing in the state laws that were seen to be driving demand. The legal aspect notwithstanding, the market is large, but finite. It will be necessary to differentiate an approach on one or more levels in order to get the attention of the buyers.

The niching of the software segment of the industry appears to be another ascendant theme. For the software players, the days of being all things to all people may be coming to an end with the rise of corporate buyers. Buyers want to talk to people who understand their environment, their pain points and their objectives, and who can demonstrate having dealt with all three in the past. I don’t think hyper-specialization is necessarily the key to success, but a clear focus of effort that is in concert with a development roadmap certainly is. Those who want to dazzle with smoke and mirrors will quickly find themselves masters of nothing. The increasingly sophisticated buyers will easily see through the hokum of empty press releases and constant Twitter babble and demand to be told where the beef is.

Our industry is not unique in terms of having a mix of nice, honest people and some real slime that belongs under a rock. As the years have passed by, my ability to find and embrace the former while sniffing out and avoiding the latter is improving, but it takes constant effort. The sniping, poaching and blatant misrepresentation of reality does no one any good, yet it persists. As an example, one item that generated substantial buzz at the show was BroadSign’s filing for Chapter 11 on the Sunday prior to the show. It was interesting to hear about how some people were anxious to pile on to BroadSign without understanding the actual action or situation. I am told reliably that executive level emails went out from certain competitor(s) misrepresenting the situation and all but burying BroadSign. That is pretty low, and a clear indication of character from where I sit. Our company competes vigorously with BroadSign, but I have respect for them and think that Brian Dusho has done a remarkable job given the cards he was dealt upon assuming his current role. The truth is that there are a number of companies in far more dire situations than BroadSign, despite the filing. This may be heresy to some, but I hope that the planned sale and recap works out for them. Competition makes everyone better. I’d rather save the venom for people who cross the line than kick good folks when they are down.

The Federation. I am happy to report that the Digital Signage Federation, which was born at DSE 2010, is doing very well indeed. Past Chairman Bob Stowe handed the reins and a strong organization to Alan Brawn this year, and Bob received well-deserved recognition for his efforts at the awards dinner Wednesday night. Alan will tirelessly push things to the next level in the coming year. I am particularly proud of how much work has been done in education, outreach, certification and now globalization of the effort. And the work will continue, as DSF strives to provide independent leadership for the industry. If you haven’t joined yet, please do. Your input and energy is welcomed as the industry evolves.