Recently, I was in a very nice local restaurant that happens to have an outstanding wine list. I grabbed my iPhone and began looking up a number of possible choices on my handy Wine Guide application. I had to chuckle when I noticed that a gentleman at a nearby table, whom I would not have stereotyped as an iPhone user, was looking up from his iPhone and announcing ratings and values on his choices to the table. For the record, he selected a really nice Barolo, we went with a Ridge Geyserville Zin. The scene (or perhaps it was Paul Draper) got me thinking about the ripple effect of innovation.

Innovation is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the introduction of something new; a new idea, method or device”. By any interpretation of that definition, the iPhone was a true innovation. In many ways, it transformed the the generally accepted notion of a cell phone. Apple’s real stroke of genius was to wrap the touchscreen and user interface into a platform for applications. That of course spawned the App Store, an innovation in and of itself that in turn unleashed the creative energy of thousands of application developers. The work of those developers is where innovation is now occurring in the smartphone world. It is reasonable to say that the progression of iPhone models since the original iPhone have brought enhancements and features to the table, but not a whole lot of true innovation. Transformation was followed by refinement end enhancement. It has unfolded much like the evolution of the personal computer. The PC was certainly a transformational innovation. But the subsequent innovation in personal computing has come from the work done in operating systems and application development. The innovative hardware platform spawned innovations in its usage. Ongoing advances in personal computing, such as laptops and tablets, have really been form factor adaptations of the core platform to emerging use cases.

Here is where the gravelly soil of Geyserville comes in: relating this thought to digital signage. Stretch as we might, there is not an innovative hardware platform that spawned an industry in digital signage. Media players, whether PCs or appliances, are merely software-enabled instances of PC boards in one guise or another. The argument that flat screen displays were an enabling innovation also seems weak. Software that facilitates the management of networked digital signs cropped up to take advantage of the falling prices of displays, increasingly ubiquitous bandwidth and a fragmentation of traditional mass media. To a certain extent, the enabling conditions were the “platform” that spawned the development of what at the time were innovative applications. There is some great software out there, but there will be no emergent killer app: no Lotus 1-2-3, no Google, no Twitter. That is because the core problem of managing the distribution, playout, and reporting for a network of digital displays has been solved for quite some time. While it may seem like heresy for someone in the software business to say it, the innovation of the early years has inevitably given way to the cycle of enhancement and refinement.  Yet all is not lost: we have addressed the central problem, and the current cycle must now take things to the next level, adapting to new use cases as the personal computer has. A redefinition of innovation is required, and how engineers take today’s solutions into tomorrow will be critical. Innovation in this enhancement and refinement stage will mean advances in design, architecture, business models and execution. With the shakeout of the sector quietly underway, no one is going to innovate their way to the top of the heap in the traditional sense, because the dragon was slain long ago. Winners will continuously improve, respond to customer needs, exploit defensible niches, identify the right partners and integrate with other strategic applications.

There may be those who will take issue with the assertion that innovation has run its course in digital signage software. I would guess the four-inch screen crowd will be the loudest. So let’s make it clear: mobile innovation is taking place at very high speed in the mobile market. Mobile integration is what needs to take place in the digital signage market: digital signage platforms can and should integrate and otherwise partner with the best of breed.

In a lifecycle that tracks those of the personal computer and the iPhone, the platform that is digital signage began life as innovative and transformational. Once established, innovation has given way to enhancement, refinement and adaptation to the external forces it enabled. The meaning and nature of innovation changes as the cycle marches on. The dragon representing the core business challenge has been slain, but that hardly means that the job is done. It just means that the job has been redefined.