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.
Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
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 newegg.com (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!