If you look closely, disconnected comments and trends often have a common thread.  Buzz and amazement persist from several sources that there are 340 software solutions in the digital signage space. In a giftwrapped piece on DailyDOOH, the CEO of a major solution provider lamented that selling digital signage solutions is hard. And over on the 11th Screen, Mike Cearley floated the idea that our industry lags in innovation because it has not embraced openness and attracted independent developers, a la mobile platforms. There are two overarching concepts that tie these ideas together. The first is a throwaway maxim with the ring of truth. The second is a dose of reality that hits you hard, bro.

If it were easy, anyone could do it.

At the very foundation of digital signage is the simple concept of file transfer. One way or another, a file must make its way from one point to another. It is not, to use a tired metaphor, rocket science. Marry a simple core technical concept with the lure of a gigantic, untapped market and you will certainly attract many developers. Such has been the case with digital signage, where the preponderance of those 340 solutions are basic, untested noisemakers who have proudly “cracked the code” on moving files around. That is easy, and anyone can do it. But there are some hard bits to this business, and the newbies, freebies and wannabes inevitably find that out if they survive long enough to see a real business application of their software magic. Scheduling, security, stability, scalability, screen control, synchronization and support are just a few of the complexities that start with the letter “s”. Resolving these and the rest of the alphabet soup of challenges requires identifying or discovering them, and then having the time, resources, capability and architecture to address them efficiently if not elegantly. Few have or will have the ability to carry that off, so the rest are left to trumpet their approach to what is easy, rather than what is innovative.

The innovators of function, architecture and business models have to deal with the noise of the followers while trying to reach the few buyers who understand and appreciate the complexities of the business. Innovation often falls victim to the market noise and price pressure generated by non-innovators and opportunists. That said, I have seen lots of innovative thinking in the digital signage space: ideas, partnerships and functions that advance the art as well as the business. But we will almost always suffer in comparative innovation to far reaching B2C technologies and their huge target markets. Digital signage is a B2B market, unlike mobile apps, and innovation will truly be unleashed by the competitive requirements of a rationalized market. If Mike’s vision of independent developers writing to open specs ever comes to fruition, it will be after the market is rationalized, and platforms of true scale (and therefore opportunity) emerge.

So yes, there are too many software players in a market that has grown nicely but not meteorically. And yes, it is hard to sell in a space where the barrier to entry is low and the awareness of what a complete solution really looks like is equally low. And yes, innovation is tempered by both preceding factors. But those things tend to wash out over time, as they will here, if only because it really is not easy.

Digital signage is neither necessary nor sufficient

There, I said it. And it is true. Digital signage does not solve a mission critical problem that makes it necessary. It is a technical approach to the distribution of rich media messaging that was enabled in part by the emergence of broadband. There is not a single retailer, medical office, gym, bar, college campus or corporate office that needs digital signage. Each can execute their core business functions without it, and many still do. That does not mean that digital signage adds no value. It most certainly does. But so does a navigation system in a car, although few would argue that navigation is truly necessary. This simple truth seems to have escaped those who continue to bring new solutions to market without determining a need.

Compounding that, digital signage implemented as a standalone island of messaging limits its ability to solve problems and add value: it is seldom sufficient. In order to achieve its optimal value, digital signage must be part of architecture, part of a solution, not the solution itself. In retail, there must be integration with store systems, customer management systems, inventory systems and mobile applications. Without all of the above, the ability to use analytics to optimize both content and customer-specific offers is limited. Interestingly, at the Digital Signage Investor Conference yesterday, RMG CEO Garry McGuire said that his company is morphing into an analytics company. He is really on to something that will fundamentally change the nature, position and strategic importance of digital signage. RMG’s ability to complete their evolution will only increase as steps are taken to integrate with premise, external and customer applications, as they must.

The road to making digital signage necessary is dotted with signs that point to its lack of sufficiency and passes thru the intersection with other technologies and applications. At the end of the road is the core of a strategic marketing system. Stand by: there are going to be many approaches to making this happen, and do not assume that it will be easy. The skills and competencies required do not all reside where you think they might. It is going to be an amazing ride. Doubt that, and reality will hit you hard, bro.