Somewhere along the way in the race to the bottom, the digital signage industry has lost track of two key business truisms. The first is there is no such thing as a free lunch. The second is that ROI calculations do not stop at investment. Rather, they include benefits and total cost of ownership (TCO). This blinding glimpse of the obvious came to me when a colleague related a conversation he had with a prospect this week. In the course of a typical, positive conversation following a demo, the prospect made it clear that he would have a tough time justifying the price of a player above the commonly available and overhyped low end Android devices. Certainly understandable, since a person new to the business might scan popular blogs and social media and think that these low end devices are some kind of panacea. My colleague responded with an observation of his own: when the cost of a truck roll exceeds the cost of a new player, you had better feel pretty good about reliability, and understand that the cost of the player does not end with its purchase. In other words, if you want to take care of business, you ought to consider total cost of ownership before taking a plunge in the shallow end of the device pool.
There is certainly anecdotal (if not empirical) evidence that low cost Android players and software are pretty far from being a panacea. They have their place, and their applications, but they most certainly have their limitations and issues as well. For starters, Android is an operating system that is optimized for mobile devices. It was built to optimize experiences around text messaging, Instagram and Angry Birds, not digital signage. But why believe me when you can observe the behavior of Google, the Android mothership? When Google made their maiden voyage at DSE 2015 with a giant space front and center, it was all about Chrome, not Android. Nobody knows the capabilities and limitations of Android better than Google, and the fact that they chose to feature Chrome at DSE, with all its own limitations (video, anyone?), speaks volumes. Chrome may very well have some application in digital signage, but you can measure Google’s real interest in the business by the fact that they do not currently show up on the floor plan for DSE 2016. If that is not enough, the reviews are coming in for the first round of networks that went Android. To be sure, there are some that have done well, but there are plenty that are floundering, openly looking for new solutions, and discovering the hard way that cheap is as cheap does. Capabilities and reliability have simply not matched the promise of the hype. Trucks have been rolled to manually reset hung players. Others players are rebooted daily to “resolve” memory leaks. Remote capabilities have been lacking. Field upgrades are problematic. And cheap player parts, including low end power supplies used to hit target prices, have not yet reached the end of their useful life. But that day is coming as well. Sending techs out to press buttons and replace low cost parts sure makes TCO a more relevant calculation than cost to purchase.
Generally speaking, Android and the bevy of Android players it spawned is not as exciting, or as stable and future ready as some would have you believe. And make no mistake: when you see Wintel being hyped as the new low cost solution, it is because Windows is relative nirvana compared to Android, emphasis on relative. And when you consider the source of this bluster, there is more than a bit of irony.
We’ve heard similar stories before. Remember how excited some people were about SMIL and super cheap SMIL players? Or perhaps you don’t. There was nothing to see there, no free lunch. Similarly, System on Chip (SoC) solutions, another hand-me-down from the mobile device world, have been an abject failure in the marketplace by any measure. Interestingly, SoC was marketed with a heavy TCO justification, largely based on savings related to cables and media players. They forgot to mention little things like lack of upgradability and an architecture that limits the function of full software suites.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not speaking from an uninformed place: our company has not completely ignored Android. We have quietly developed an Android product, but have have chosen to limit its application to appropriate use cases and specific devices. Android has its place, but is not the silver bullet of digital signage and should never be hyped or sold as such. In the long run, there is little doubt that two immutable forces will converge to drive Android toward the fate of SMIL in the world of digital signage. The first would be Intel driving the cost of powerful-enough x86 chips down toward the top end of ARM chip prices, and here’s a hint: NOT to run Windows. That process has started. The second would be real efforts by ARM chipmakers to support Linux implementations in a robust manner, something they have not yet done with real commitment because churning out dozens of customized versions of Android has been easy and profitable. But that mindset will change as chip capabilities continue to advance, and demand for Linux to drive more sophisticated apps rises with it.
In the mean time, network operators would be well advised to keep TCO in mind when taking care of business. Cue BTO…