I've been meaning to write a reply to Ken Goldberg's thought-provoking blog post about Intel's foray into digital signage software since I read it last week. But lacking the time or the inclination to stay awake late into the night (I must be getting old), I wasn't surprised to see that the DailyDOOH's Adrian Cotterill beat me to it. Still, I think that while Ken and Adrian both cover interesting angles, they miss the important one: Intel must start becoming a meaningful presence in every emerging technology field -- and soon -- or else risk becoming irrelevant to many in the very near future. And that's what their latest digital signage gambit is all about.
The road less traveled
Frankly speaking, the road less traveled is one that Intel doesn't have the luxury of taking. They're so large that any kind of meaningful contribution to their bottom line has to be measured in billions of dollars. And they have such a dominance in the desktop and laptop PC markets, that finding any other use for these devices today is simply meaningless in terms of promoting the sale of new chips. And that's what most of us have focused on in the past -- in a good year, the global digital signage ecosystem might have produced enough demand for a few hundred thousand players, with an upper bound of around a million units. While Intel would certainly like to sell another million chips, this would barely make a dent in the roughly 67 million they sold last year. Oh, and most of those digital signage players probably had Intel chips inside to begin with.
But two, three or four years from now, that may not be the case anymore. Almost every software vendor these days has (or is working on) a port for other CPU architectures, most notably ARM. And even as the capabilities of these low-power platforms improve, many new projects are opening up at the bottom end of the capabilities spectrum. For example, tens of thousands of digital menu boards will be deployed this year, and most of them don't need anything more powerful than a simple system-on-chip to handle their simple, repetitive tasks like reading an XML file or querying a database, updating item and price fields on a grid, and showing still images. Granted, the vast majority of those menu boards are probably powered by Intel chips today, but that may no longer be the case for new deployments a few years down the road.
Is that a thing?
Even if they were determined to capture 100% of the digital signage market, though, it still wouldn't make sense for Intel to get as involved in the industry as they have. So there must be another reason, and I'd argue that it's because digital signage is about to become a "thing" -- one of many connected devices in the ridiculously-named but rapidly-growing Internet of Things (or IoT, if you have that disease that forces you to abbreviate everything). The digital signage ecosystem is already pretty thing-like, since our projects revolve around networks of uniquely-identified, single-purpose computing devices that are remotely controlled, often from "the cloud". So while Intel is publicly staking a position in digital signage land, what they're really doing is getting more experience selling their chips into connected "things," and then managing those things. For the time being, the only things with a heavy enough workload to justify an Intel chip are those that also have to push a lot of pixels, and so signage is a natural fit. (Intel has also sponsored some projects for big, touchscreen-equipped vending machines that have yet to really go anywhere.) In the future, though, if they ever produce a cheap, extremely low-power Atom variant or something similar that could compete with ARM for limited-purpose computing devices, their experience will give them a good branching off point. And that's important, since (depending on which ridiculous 3rd party research report you read) there will be somewhere between 3 and 50 billion "things" deployed in the coming years -- and that's a number that Intel can't ignore.
What, me worry?
So as a vendor that might wind up competing with Intel, do I care? Nope. Am I going to stop using/selling Intel-based systems? Nope. I mean, did you see that line about 3 to 50 billion devices being deployed? That's a big market to grow into, and it's so heterogeneous in terms of form and function that it's almost impossible to imagine one company dominating it, even if that company is Intel. And as for not using their Intel-based PCs for vanilla digital signage in the near-term, that'd be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are more cheap, small PCs on the market that make great digital signage players than ever before, and there's still enough of a performance gap to justify the extra $100 or $200 that it costs to get an Intel-based system in many applications.
So in the end, Intel's... let's call it "enhanced interest"... in the digital signage space is neither surprising nor misguided. It's a cheap way to get a toehold in the large and rapidly growing market for the Internet of Things, which they currently have little experience or brand equity in. They can start out doing what they already know, using the products they already sell. And if their wares become competitive in the "things" market in the future, they'll be able to more rapidly pivot to win new opportunities. But given that there are a lot of "ifs" involved, and that there are already viable software solutions available at every price point from $0 to $10,000+, I'm not going to lose any sleep at night over their Machiavellian plans to take over the digital signage industry. And neither should you.