As I waited for the ice to melt off the windshield of the car in my Southwest Florida driveway, I pondered three important questions. When did the Bostonian in me come to think that 32 degrees is cold? How much extra roll will a golf ball get on frozen bermuda grass? Do I regret missing the NRF (National Retail Federation) Big Show for the first time since 1988? The answers came to me slowly as the defroster warmed up and the washer fluid ran out. My perception of relative coldness probably went off kilter when I parted with most of my skiwear in the mid-90’s. The extra roll on a frozen fairway is only an operative concept if the ball is in the fairway. And while I am uneasy not being at the Javits Center this week, I feel comfortable with the idea of staying in the (relatively) warmer climes of Florida to tend to important tasks. Last year’s lackluster attendance and generally scattered understanding of digital signage on the show floor made the decision easier. But it may not be so easy next year.

If one were to gauge the value of the conference by monitoring Twitter or industry blogs and news feeds, then it would appear that monumental things are going on over on 11th Avenue this week. Several big technology companies have moved their roadshow from last week’s CES show in Vegas to New York this week. While the sales and marketing teams have probably switched out as the focus came east, the PR machines have remained in high gear, putting a retail spin on things. The clear goal is to get reviewed, You Tubed, blogged, tweeted or otherwise noticed. To be singled out for notoriety at the monstrous CES is often a gateway to capital, orders and general buzz. NRF, on the other hand, is much more of a community gathering, with a defined application and services space. Job mobility is very high between and among retail-focused service providers, technology vendors and retailers themselves. As a result, it seems as though everyone at the Big Show can connect through less than the seven degrees it takes to get to Kevin Bacon. So effectively creating buzz in this large but tight community is a very powerful strategy.

What we are seeing this week is a wave of digital signage announcements, driven predominately by the largest vendors in the retail technology space. Several digital signage companies have made announcements at NRF, but they just don’t have the juice to create real buzz. While the exhibit hall presence of pure digital signage vendors appears to be relatively flat from last year, it looks like the big technology providers have recognized that digital signage is going to be a part of the retail application portfolio going forward. This alone is good, because as we are witnessing, the marketing machines of the huge IT vendors can not be matched by those of the nascent digital signage industry. The overriding effort of the bigs appears to be the establishment of retail digital signage credentials, building talking points that will sell more product, and positioning to become the go-to visionary advisors in the space.

Without doubt the most attention in the news and the Twittersphere has been Intel’s digital signage concept, unveiled at CES last week, and recycled at NRF with retail spin. Ably covered by Dave Haynes on Sixteen-Nine, complete with pictures and video, the concept combines gigantic side-by side floor-standing displays. One is more or less traditional digital signage, albeit with the ability to select which ad you want to see (someone needs to think that feature through!). The other is a holographic display that combines every hot techno-buzz feature possible to support wayfinding and suggestive selling: augmented reality, interactivity, mobile integration, camera-enabled video analytics, and more. All, of course, made possible by the Intel Core i7 processor. Intel makes it clear that the exhibit is a concept, a vision of what can be. They want to take both a thought leadership and a technology leadership position as retailers prepare to place their bets. It is the right path to take for Intel, given the nature of their product: unseen but critical. They know very well, as most readers of this blog do, that the reality of today’s mainstream marketplace does not include 7-foot holographic displays or even Core i7 chipsets. Cost factors drive the vast majority of the market toward lower cost processors such as Intel’s Atom and Core 2 Duo (full disclosure: our media players are based on those chipsets today) and smaller, more manageable and affordable displays. But making a clear statement as to where this could lead is an important step in making retailers understand what can be. The retailers will be pragmatic as always, and walk before they run, but Intel has done a nice job of making the possibilities known. That elevates the conversation. So, thank you, Intel.

In a related move, Intel and Microsoft jointly announced “optimized digital signage solutions based on the Intel Core i7 processor and Windows 7-based Microsoft Windows Embedded Standard 2011″ in an effort to “better standardize a fragmented market”. The idea of standards is laudable, and the Wintel combine (more disclosure: we use MS Windows Embedded Standard, a/k/a XP Embedded, on the vast majority of our media players) is no stranger to establishing and marketing them. No doubt, this announcement will be followed by a series of software vendors rushing to become certified on the new “standard” platform in order to become beneficiaries of both the power of the Wintel technology capabilities and their marketing muscle. Again, proven tactics and good strategy. However, the new Wintel “standard” will be established at the high end of the marketplace until the cost curve on the Core i7 makes its way south. Currently, Intel’s web site shows a reference price for the Core i7-720QM processor 74% higher than the Core 2 Duo P8700. The prices will come down, as they always do. Until then, buyer requirements in the mass market are going to focus the big volume on lower cost processors. Intel still wins by providing cost effective technology today while also making the capabilities of the next generation abundantly clear. Microsoft wins by positioning the next generation of embedded OS even while it is quite happy to be selling thousands of the current generation. Perhaps equally important, their agenda is to provide a clear value proposition versus Linux, which is unburdened by MS license fees. The concept displays may have helped them in that regard.

The NRF Big Show is an important venue for retail technology. With the time, money and effort being spent by the biggest technology players to promote and support the notion of digital signage, it will likely (finally) become an important venue for digital signage going forward. Looks like I’ll have to do the golf ball research on the frozen fairways of 11th Avenue next year.