From the level of exposure at the Digital Signage Expo this year, you would think that ARM-based boards had just been invented and Google had rolled out a radical new operating system with a cute logo resembling R2D2. The truth is that ARM is not quite as old as good old Artoo, but almost so. And Android, the OS behind the cute logo? It was introduced 6 years ago and has quite a bit of community support, but at its roots is still an OS optimized for consumer mobile products, not that there is anything wrong with that. What has happened to cause this sudden stir in the digital signage world?  Two things, actually. First, the increasing capability of low cost ARM CPU-GPU boards to display high definition content has created a cost/performance chasm for certain applications when compared with the reigning chip king, Intel’s X86 architecture. Stubborn and/or tone deaf, Intel continues to pour huge marketing dollars into its highest-end chips in an industry screaming for lower cost platforms, and to date has not offered their own ARM implementation. Instead, their recent  introduction of a low cost digital signage reference design board is sadly paired with a fan. (If you are using media players with fans, you should consider the remarkable failure rate of fanned versus fanless devices, and stop. You might also reconsider smoking, drinking and driving, and running with scissors.) In the wake of that, a large and inviting market opening was created. Second, a massive marketing push by Samsung, one of the world’s largest producers of ARM chips, emerged as they introduced a strategy to embed consumer grade ARM chips into commercial monitors (SoC they call it, or System on a Chip) in an attempt to mitigate the need for those powerful, costly x86 players. The convergence of these two forces became apparent at the annual gathering of the industry in Las Vegas. As a result, choices are being made that will shape the destiny of vendors and networks alike for years to come, and it is worth taking a moment to understand what has changed, and what has not. The discussion herein is most definitely not meant to denigrate ARM or judge Samsung’s strategy, but to examine the impact of these powerful converging forces. My own disclosure on both ARM and Samsung, can be found at the end of the post.

Prior to DSE, software vendors had divided into several camps. One camp took the route of leveraging Samsung’s engineering assistance and marketing dollars and created demoware applications for the show. One vendor even enjoyed a very temporary (but significant) spike in its public valuation following a cleverly worded announcement of their “alignment” with Samsung. Such is the power of buzz, as well as its transient nature, and people should take note of both. Another group of vendors resisted the gravitational pull of the Samsung galaxy and undertook unilateral development efforts on ARM platforms. At least one company actually took both routes. And still others remained on the sidelines, proffering orphaned mobile apps or being content with their lot. Regardless of which camp a vendor found themselves in, it seems that the direction of the conversation has veered sharply toward low cost and lightweight. An entire industry seemed to jump on the first train headed out of Santa Clara, as if the long-awaited convergence of DOOH and mobile was actually going to occur at the chip level and not the content level. The speed with which a group of smart people who proudly chant a mantra of content, engagement, commercial grade displays, 24/7 reliability and software functionality dropped any pretense of diligence was amazing. The excitement over first generation low cost player platforms and lightweight software applications seemed very sudden, almost as if end user interest had outstripped the capabilities of first generation offerings, a potentially dangerous situation. I suspect that equilibrium will be found just as suddenly, as it was in the public market, and that ongoing research and product development will get out in front of demand once again.

Make no mistake about it, ARM-based computing will have a significant impact on digital signage going forward. Even from a standing start, it is highly likely that the ratio of ARM-to-x86 digital signage devices deployed will swing towards ARM much faster than you might guess. What is yet to be determined is what form factors, standards and use cases will emerge as predominant in the ARM sector of the market, and what percentage of deployed ARM devices will be incremental end points as opposed to replacement endpoints. It is fair to characterize both the ARM media player and the SoC display approaches as first generation from a digital signage technology perspective. The obvious rush to have something to announce and/or show at DSE underscored the fact that for everyone involved, it is early in the game. The vendor(s) who spew out dozens of redundant tweets per week or take a price point approach in order to get noticed know this as well as anyone, but are happy to receive the attention that those strategies get them, even as they consider next steps.

As one might expect, the sudden entry of ARM into the industry consciousness created many questions. Amidst the trade show hubbub and puffery it is not clear how many questions were asked by network operators or answered by vendors. Here are a few questions to ask yourself, your vendor, or your resident tech person.

1. What is the expected production life of the board/chipset that I am buying into? Am I really future proofed from a capabilities perspective?

2. With the pace of change accelerating, what are the strategies for upgrading and staying current?  Consider that when I buy a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 the day it is released (and I plan to), strong rumors indicate that it will have an Exynos 5 Octa CPU, featuring two chips leveraging ARM’s big.LITTLE design. Eight cores. Even if you can’t decipher all that, you can probably imagine how it might apply to digital signage use cases.

3. What shortcuts are taken to build an ARM player at a low price point, and how does that impact viability in a commercial, 24/7 use case? Here’s one hint: a reliable power supply with a reasonable life expectancy costs $8 to $20. Power supplies generally come in second to fans as typical points of media player failure.

4. Will I need to change my content strategy and the way I build content?

5. Is it appropriate to abandon store-and-forward architecture for my use case? Will I have to?

6. Will I need to give anything up to adopt a low cost model? If so, what?

7. What failover and redundancy strategies are available to me?

8. Can a multi-output, traditional media player offset enough software costs to make it both safer and less expensive than two ARM players?

9. In a mixed environment of ARM-based and x86-based devices, will I be able to use the same software and content seamlessly?

10. Will Intel respond by cutting prices further on Atom-based boards to try to level the playing field? What if they do?

11. How will/can Microsoft respond to an emerging environment where a Windows license approaches the cost of an entire player, rendering it a non-starter?

12. Is there a different approach to the large scale market versus the low volume market?

13. How should technical choices be dictated by content, environment and use case?

Many of these questions are variants of the same questions you might have been (or should have been) asking about media players and architectures for the past ten years, an indication that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The answers to some of them are the stuff of entire posts. The bottom line is that there are more choices now, which is a reason to take a diligent approach to making those choices. That applies to vendors and end users alike. ARM computing has landed on the beach of digital signage, and every constituency in the industry is scrambling to asses how it may impact their business, while strategizing how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities it presents. Many questions will be answered in the coming months as R&D is fed by real world testing and use cases.  It will be exciting times, and what we see today will almost certainly be remembered as early days. You may not regret missing that first train, but it would be wise to contact your travel agent.

Disclosure: Real Digital Media has had an ongoing ARM-based R&D project for months, and we showed a prototype based on that research and our approach to ARM at DSE. We will announce the specifics of our approach and the related products when they are tested and ready to ship, and not before. Real Digital Media is proud to be a Samsung partner. While we were not one of the vendors in the Samsung booth at DSE, we anticipate working with Samsung to bring a differentiated offering to their platform for targeted markets and use cases. We will also continue to offer x86-based players and to invest in extracting every drop of capability from them to meet current and future customer needs.