The Digital Signage Insider

Intel, Microsoft and the Open-Standards Digital Signage Platform

Published on: 0000-00-00

At last week's NRF show, Intel and Microsoft introduced a new prototype design that they're calling an "open-standards platform for digital signage." As summarized in this nice writeup from eWeek, the platform consists of Intel-based hardware, Microsoft-based software, and a bevy of peripherals like holographic film, large touch screens, and cameras for detecting a viewer's age, gender and ethnicity. The idea that titans like Intel and Microsoft would bother dabbling in an industry as small as ours perplexes me. That they'd refer to it as "open-standards" leaves me wondering if they speak English as a first language. So, I've spent some time thinking about Microsoft and Intel, why they've decided to do what they did, and what it could mean for our industry.

A standard by any other name...

Microsoft. Open standards. Microsoft. Open standards. They just don't go in the same sentence -- unless featured in the minutes of an antitrust hearing and separated by a clause like "is once again subverting." Whether ignoring the W3C or convincing Congress that their closed-source, undocumented Office formats are "open", Redmond is far better known for their "embrace, extend, extinguish" strategy for dealing with competitive products than their non-domineering work on truly open standards -- which they've admittedly done quite a bit of. The case here seems less nefarious so far, though, given that there are about 50 digital signage companies actually working on open standards for interoperability, and we've never heard the merest whisper of desire from either MS or Intel to join. In short, I think using the phrase "open standards" is basically just a marketing ploy.

Given that Microsoft's main contribution here is the Windows operating system, I don't see how the software component of the platform differs much from the $30 copy of Windows 7 that comes on the $500 PCs my customers frequently buy -- which they end up reformatting with our Linux-based software, anyway. But then it's possible that all of the snazzy functionality that Intel's Paul Otellini showed off only runs on the $200 Windows 7 Ninja Elite version (or at least a non-OEM copy of Windows Embedded Standard 2011), which would partly explain Microsoft's eagerness to jump into our industry. The rest of the software might as well be off-the-shelf from any of the myriad vendors already servicing our industry. Perhaps there really is something new and remarkable about their offering, but if so, they're having an awfully hard time articulating it.

Did I mention $500 PCs?

Considering that your options for a computer CPU are -- for most intents and purposes -- limited to just two competitors (Intel and AMD), it's a little surprising to see that both of these firms are bothering to engage our industry. On the other hand, much like Microsoft trying to get you to buy a higher-end Windows license, it makes sense for Intel to look for ways to compel high-end business applications like digital signage to use bigger, faster, more expensive processors whenever possible. To wit, Intel's Core i7 processor is an absolute beast when it comes to performance, and given the complexity of the application that they were showing off, was an apt choice. But all that performance comes at a price. A quick scan of (one of my favorite e-tailers) shows that the lowest-priced Core i7 costs about $280 in small quantities. Meanwhile, I have clients who are seriously considering large scale deployments using $300 computers equipped with $25 Intel Atom processors (albeit heavily aided by powerful-but-cheap NVIDIA graphics processors). Will such a machine do camera-aided identification? Probably not. Will it render flawless HD video, animations, web pages, and text crawls? Yup. It will even handle touch screens, gesture recognition, and holographic projection. For 99% of the market, that's more than good enough.

  Consequently, both Microsoft and Intel face an uphill battle here. They need to convince not only solution providers, but also their cost-conscious customers, that there are tangible benefits to be had by going with a beefier processor and more expensive software. And as somebody who's been working in this industry for about a decade now, I can tell you that price is simply the most important factor for the majority of buyers. So unless Intel and Microsoft can show a truly remarkable ROI with their digital signage platform, they're facing a very tough sell.

What does it all mean for our industry?

Needless to say, as a purveyor of digital signage software (Linux-based, no less), I was initially a little concerned to hear about this new "Wintel" offering. However, given what Intel and Microsoft are really pitching here, I think this platform will ultimately turn out to be less of an offering to end customers, and more of an integration point for those looking to do digital signage-like activities inside of their already-customized Wintel enterprises. Kind of like how Cisco often bundles its digital signage players with its routers and other networking equipment.

Now, on the other hand, if Intel or Microsoft really did decide to get serious about our industry, it could be a big wakeup call for many of us in the software game, as well as many of the second-tier hardware integrators that build custom media players for digital signs. Likewise, one or both could join the POPAI Digital Signage Standards Group and bring some much-needed big company perspective. However, given that the combined sales of digital signage software and media players is still well, well south of ten digits, I don't believe either of these firms can justify a real investment in the marketplace any time in the near future.

What do you think about the Intel/Microsoft "open-standards platform" for digital signage? Is it all hype? Is it just more of the same? Or is it something truly revolutionary? Leave a comment and let me know!


0 # Dave Haar 2010-01-19 20:05
Dear Bill, Great comments on these industry (IT) leaders playing into the Digital Signage space. I anticipate that both Intel and Microsoft will continue to contribute to the success of the industry - from both a technology integration and market awareness perspective. In answer to your questions - I don't think they can claim open standards and I agree that they need to be part of the POPAI process. I don't think it is hype - at least on Intel's part - they are serious and will continue to improve the performance of their chip sets. Revolutionary - as you said - maybe...
0 # Jason Cremins 2010-01-19 20:31
Bill, great post as always. Whilst we are commited to providing a windows based solution and will continue to do so, we acknowledge the emergence of true Open Standards based hardware solutions such as those being developed by IAdea and their OEM partners including Viewsonic, Advantech, AIS and Sony and we are committed to extending the support of our signagelive platform to embrace this new technology. Like you, we have looked at the Intel/Microsoft proposition and cannot see how it is anything other than a marketing position, as anyone already working with Windows based PC technology for true unattended digital signage applications will have already implemented the proposed features they have spoon feed to the marketplace. With Intel booked for a 110sqm stand at Screen Media Expo in UK in May and generating considerable press attention for Digital Signage beyond the traditional pool of trade blogs, we might not believe the hype but we can thank them for generating increased awareness of our industry and driving potential customers to our own offerings as a result. Best Regards Jason
0 # Carlos Silva 2010-01-19 20:34
I think that they start to discover the full potencial of our industry, but too many hype and to little innovation. But to be honest we try the new Intel i7 and it works very very fast, so its up to us to make something really new ;) Great comments.
0 # Ken Goldberg 2010-01-20 00:54
Bill: The good news is that Intel and Microsoft see enough potential in our industry to unleash their incredible PR machines around this announcement and the Intel digital signage concept exhibit at NRF. The amazing number of articles, blogs and tweets on the announcement mean that many, many eyeballs and brains have focused on digital signage that may otherwise not have noticed, and that is good. The bad news is that for the most part, the articles parroted the PR spin and pretended not to notice that the DS concept was neither available for sale nor marketable if it was available. So expectations were not aligned with reality. You are accurate in pointing out that the marketplace is focused more on affordability and practicality (at the Atom end of the product scale) than on vision or making the Minority Report a reality (the Core i7 end of the product scale). I think Intel knows this and is simply using the hubbub to advance their position versus their own competition. MS, for its part, has to find a way to position its product against Linux, which is "free". Teaming with Intel to establish a perceived "standard" is one way to skin that cat. In the end, customers decide, based on their own requirements, budgets and vision. The buzz will subside, reality will set in, and life will go on, but our visibility as an industry is advanced. Not so bad.
-1 # Tony Scott 2010-01-20 01:53
Bill, as always a very unbiased and insightful comment on the announcement. We are almost entirely a Windows based software developer with Linux offered as an option. To be honest a lot depends on the end-user. Many of our corporate installations are unhappy with open source based systems as they view them with some suspicion and are afraid they will not be supported if they have problems. Coming from a Unix/SCO Xenix basckground I always attempt to allay their fears. You are right. This is being packaged as a 'standard' but in reality is purely marketing hype. We are already using Windows POS Ready or embedded as an OS and our players are built using Intel components. The announced combinations are only a natural extension of existing products or what was known to be in the pipeline anyway. Attempting to create one size fits all standards like this is nonsense. If the new Wintel box was cheap as chips there would be some point. We would all be happy to provide over specified hardware if it costs little more than our current range. As you pointed, price is often 75% of the decision making process. Sensible suppliers cut their cloth according to their clients' needs. If they only require simple displays with undemanding content they do not want to pay for a behemoth of a machine and it is unnecessary. Provided there is enough headroom in the specifications to cater for future envisaged use then the players should be matched to the requirement. The Wintel presentation seems to be posited on the view that everybody is going to need fancy facial recognition, extremely demanding conetn etc. That is not the real workd.
-1 # Tim Burke 2010-01-20 14:37
Another insightful blog post, as always Bill. As the rappers Public Enemy said: "don't believe the hype", you have to read between the lines and consider the source. There have been a lot of big players suddenly feeling the urge to put their stink on our market, but it is always a thin veil and late to the game. The danger is many customers will go with brand recognition over industry expertise and buy into systems that are not a good fit. When I realized a few months ago that Dell computers was positioning a digital signage solution I felt like it was interesting to see that this big player was developing solutions. Only to look deeper to see that it was all marketing to try to push their small form factor PC's as part of an overall package of existing solutions from vendors in our space. A good alliance for those vendors and will likely drive business for them. As for using Dell pc's behind my customer's screens... you won't see me doing it. Overkill for most projects. We've used Windows Embedded (primarily) and Linux OS on kiosks and DS solutions for years. I don't see this as anything different. Both Intel and MS are just trying to expose their solutions to the marketplace. Likely to defend perception of Linux as a more trouble free platform, but more likely as the lower cost platform which is vital in these value conscious times. Keep up the good work Bill!
0 # Bill Gerba 2010-01-20 15:43
Jason and Ken: Your points are very valid, and I feel silly for not having mentioned them in the article. Whenever you have heavyweights playing in your industry it brings publicity and money. So to a certain extent their presence -- no matter how vapid -- is beneficial to the industry. Tim and Tony: I'm with you. Mostly hype and marketingspeak, but it's undeniable that these two companies already play a large role in our industry simply because of their massive presence in the overall IT landscape. Thanks for the great comments, all.
0 # CharlieC 2010-01-20 15:50
Microsoft and Intel called their solutions as "open-standards platform for digital signage." without any specs. It is a kind of abuse the word "open" and "standards". It is like publish a fake advertising on "digital signage". In their way I can also called my solution as "open-standards platform for digital signage" with ARM processor and Linux. So we can play word game to call "solution" as "platform", "close" as "open", ... Is this marketing in the world?
0 # tom from munich city 2010-01-21 08:15
I think, that any standard in that heterogenous environment is highly welcome. in first step it doesn't matter from whom. A standard would focus the development resources on a one certain system, like windows, apple or android in mobile.
0 # Bill Gerba 2010-01-21 18:12
Charlie: Agreed. MarketingSpeak at its finest. Though it could potentially be detrimental to the actual standards efforts out there, I don't think it will be. Tom: The POPAI Digital Signage technical standards group toyed with this, but decided the best way to go was to provide real lowest-level interoperability standards that will work across any operating system, etc. There are a lot of Windows, Linux and embedded media players out there, so selecting only one to focus on for the purposes of standardization would leave a very large chunk of the market remaining.
-1 # candy 2010-01-27 06:19
This is being packaged as a 'standard' but in reality is purely marketing hype. Yes, agree with Tony.
0 # Bryan Crotaz 2010-12-01 19:48
I thought it was hype until I read the OPS specification. Now that's something I like - I compare it to the ATX spec - now I can put any player in any screen, reducing cabling and complexity. NEC have said to me that their next batch of screens will have the NEC slot as well as the OPS slot. Very nice.

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