In the world of technology, while the pace of innovation always accelerates, true disruption simply does not come along every day. What does come along nearly every day are overblown press releases, planted advertorials disguised as editorials, fake testimonials and social media hype proclaiming the next BIG THING. It is easy for anyone who develops technology or leverages it in his or her business to be afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS). It is in full force in casinos, and the results are similar in business. More often than not, the next BIG THING turns out to be just another thing, flatulence in the wind.
Many unfortunate people can’t help themselves from clicking on links for vapid, useless stories simply because they see the words “Kardashian” or “Jenner”. While it should be self-evident that there is never news or anything of value behind such click bait, the clicks are monetized and time is wasted. In a similar manner, technologists and end users alike are susceptible to being distracted: their mailboxes, Twitter streams, blog rolls and water cooler discussions provide ample fuel for SOS. For the truly distractible, the shiny objects act as dog whistles for their specially tuned ears, and like a pup in training, they respond when it blows.
Two good examples of consumer grade dog whistles were the recent introductions of Google Glass and the Apple Watch. They are first generation wearables, but in both cases the ultrasonic commands for the tech-obsessed to buy one were out there in all forms of media. In their current form, both are just another thing. Maybe you have seen more Apple Watches than I have, but they are pretty rare now that the hype cycle is over. I assume Beyonce has relegated her gold Apple Watch to a drawer by now. While Google Glass arguably had more potential utility out of the box than Apple Watch, privacy concerns and the term “Glasshole” appeared early and stuck, killing the prospect of wider adoption. Both products (and wearables in general) will evolve, but for most buyers these were just expensive shiny objects.
We’ve seen our share of dog whistles in digital signage as well: SMIL, network aggregation platforms, Shazam integration, and system on chip displays to name just a few. Perhaps you can think of a few more. Each was touted as a big disrupter, but in fact turned out to be just big distracters. While everyone would like to be in early on the next big thing, those who hear dog whistles every time a breathless press release kicks off a marketing campaign often end up chasing rainbows. It can be expensive to hear like a dog.
I hear something… does that mean dinner?
In 2015, two dog whistles have caused the distractible to cock their heads and scurry to conform. One is the Google Chromebox, and the other is the technology known variously as Beacons/iBeacons/BLE. Let’s have a look at each.
At the 2015 Digital Signage Expo, Google appeared for the first time in a large booth at the front of the exhibit hall. The focus of the booth was clearly Chrome and Chromebox. Partners had scurried to port their apps (or parts of them) to Chromebox, while Google introduced a barely understandable licensing/networking scheme. In the light of day, it was just a low cost box and a browser-centric OS with shortcomings. It wasn’t new; it was just new to digital signage. Needless to say, Google supported it with lots of press, smart-sounding product managers who knew nothing about digital signage spewing Silicon Valley power lunch gibberish, and oh yeah, Google! Vendors, media and end users alike swooned. Few questioned Google’s motives, intent or actual interest in the digital signage space. Even fewer pondered the absence of Android, a Google-controlled OS making significant strides in the space, in the Google booth while Chrome was the headliner. The whistling was so constant that several dogs in Las Vegas were found rolling in the desert, paws over their ears.
Google’s power of amplification kept the noise continuously high in the months following the show. I actually ran into two instances where customers seeking to launch or re-platform major networks wanted Chromebox to be the starting point of discussions. Not objectives, not strategy, not content or even software functionality: Chromebox. At this stage of industry maturity, I found that approach amazing. Somewhere, Phil Cohen is preparing a rant about choosing hardware before you understand content strategy. To be fair, Chromebox arguably has a niche in digital signage. You will have to take my word for it, though: neither of these two large networks represented a valid use case. By the way, the CIO at one meeting had an Apple Watch. Maybe that was a coincidence.
Like moths to a light bulb, vendors have rushed to Chrome, afraid to miss the next BIG THING. Meanwhile, Google’s dalliance with digital signage may be short lived. The current floor plan for DSE 2016 remains a Google-free zone. Perhaps the dogs of Las Vegas can return home. Lots of boxes will certainly be sold, but it is just a thing.
2015 also marked the emergence of beacons into the general consciousness of the digital signage industry. No conference, webinar or blog would have been complete without trumpeting the importance of the electronic trumpet itself. As it turns out, beacons are both literally and figuratively dog whistles. Are beacons disruptive or are they just distracting?
There is little doubt that there are many good use scenarios for beacons, and some have come to light already, but the whole case for the connection to digital signage is thinner than onion skin. Beacons exist quite happily in their own mobile world, emitting their BLE messages to anyone willing to listen, defined as a smartphone user having Bluetooth on and an app open. Using digital signage to encourage consumers to download and open an app hardly passes the integration daylight test.
Will “smart beacons” arrive and help trigger content based on knowledge of users in proximity? That would improve the case for digital signage integration, and seems like a logical step. But that may be harder to accomplish than it sounds, because it looks like there may well be a VHS-Beta standards war in the making between Apple (iBeacons) and Google (Eddystone). There are those two names again. That type of uncertainty makes integration gambits just a bit riskier. The elusive connection of beacons to digital signage continues.
Even if the uncertainty of standards is resolved, whether by third party attempts or the titans themselves, there remain the challenges of apps, Bluetooth and opt-ins. How many apps are users likely to download, and how many will they keep activated? Will consumers keep Bluetooth on outside their cars if they are constantly barraged with messages? Without global opt-in/out or customizable preferences for the service, there may be real long term issues.
Marketers around the globe are testing the use of beacons, as they should. It is still too early to assess their effectiveness versus other modes of messaging or how consumers will react to wider usage. But it is clear for the moment that from a digital signage perspective, beacons are disruptive only in the sense that they divert the attention of those same marketers from proven vehicles. Beyond that, another thing. The quest for mobile-digital signage integration continues.
Both end users and technologists in digital signage have tended to respond to the dog whistle of new technologies in efforts to drive costs down and relevance up. More often than not, responding to dog whistles has cost time and money, and first mover advantages have been exceedingly hard to realize. This year, the whistle has been blown by some of the largest companies out there, and it seems that history is likely to repeat itself.