Display technology doesn’t just mean monitors anymore

Published: April 4th, 2008

Typically when we think of displays, we think of computer monitors and, increasingly, the LCD and plasma TVs that have evolved from them. But that’s not the only market for digital displays anymore.Look up to check flight times at any airport and chances are you’ll see what looks suspiciously like a flat panel computer monitor. A big one, to be sure, but nonetheless one just like the units resellers have been marketing to businesses and consumers over the past few years.

You’ll probably have noticed the same thing in large retail outlets, fast food restaurants, convention centres, train stations and other public venues: other forms of signage are being replaced by digital signage.

In fact, according to Partner Research (formerly Evans Research), while Canadian LCD monitor market growth has slowed to a single digit crawl, the market for digital signage is booming. The company estimated that 2007 shipments would increase 30 per cent over 2006, and that this year growth would exceed 50 per cent.

North America-wide, says Norman McLeod, director of the market research department at Weymouth, MA-based InfoTrends, the projected five year compound annual growth rate for retail and commercial digital signage and associated peripherals (which excludes corporate use in lobbies and meeting rooms) is 25 per cent, with revenues expected to hit about US$3 billion by 2011.

That’s a lot of monitors. And vendors are increasing both their efforts and their estimates to capture a chunk of this burgeoning market.

“We see a home for one million displays in Canada alone,” says Marco Nalli, IT marketing manager at Samsung Canada. “We’ve seen 300 per cent growth in commercial displays (from 2006 to 2007). And all of our business is through partners.”

IT VARs are positioned for success
While in the past many of these displays have been sold through audio-visual dealers, converging technologies have made computer resellers as – or better – qualified to provide digital display systems.

Technology advances mean that where commercial display systems often used to be driven off video tape, today they’re frequently networked, receiving content from a server of some description.

Says Chris Connery, vice-president, PC and large format commercial displays at specialist analyst firm DisplaySearch, “The IT dealer base has a leg up over AV dealers. IT knows a bit about displays and a lot about networking. AV dealers don’t know a lot about networking.”

Even traditional PC display companies have recognized the opportunity. ViewSonic, for example, is leveraging its display heritage and branching out into several types of commercial displays.

“It makes sense for us to provide commercial displays,” says Dan Woodward, senior product manager for ViewSonic’s commercial displays. “We know a significant portion of our LCD TVs are already being used as signage.”

However, there are, he noted, some key differences between standard displays or LCD TVs and commercial displays. For example, displays used for signage need detachable stands and detachable speakers, and the addition of an RS-232 port for connectivity. They must also be able to be mounted vertically or horizontally to accommodate customer needs.

Adds Connery, unlike TVs, which are designed to be on for perhaps four to six hours per day, digital signage is often on 24 x 7. It may be viewed in brighter lighting, and possibly from many angles, and may be in an unfriendly environment completely unlike the family room that TVs were designed for.

“An informed dealer can speak to the differences (between commercial and consumer displays), and also knows the price differences,” he says. “There may be instances where a consumer-grade display is fine in a commercial environment. The dealer should know them.”

When the display is mounted high, away from customers, in lower ambient light, and not powered on all of the time, for example, a consumer-grade unit may serve the customer’s purpose.

“We have created a dedicated sales team and engineer­ing group (to work with partners),” says Nalli. “We work with them and educate them on what products are best for (customer) needs.”

The message behind the medium
The display is one thing, but the content it is broadcasting is quite another. There are several ways to get that content to the screen.Some commercial displays have built-in players (DVD or CD drives, for example), and the smarts to continually loop the content. Those are fine for situations where there are very few locations with infrequently-changing content, but for many applications, customers needed more.

That’s where computer resellers and VARs can really add value.

Woodward explains that digital displays can receive content in many ways. The simplest: simply plug the unit into a PC. However, there are limitations to that solution if several locations are to receive the same content, if there’s scheduling and frequently-changing content involved, or if the placement of the display is awkward.

Another option is to have a central server sending content to PCs near the display, or to have the server transmit to a media player. These in turn feed IP-addressable displays.

The benefit of this multi-tiered approach is that if the server connection goes down, the local device can still keep the display going. When that display is showing advertising, and thus generating revenue, outages can be expensive for the customer!

There are, of course, downsides to each approach, Woodward notes. Although PCs are great ways to distribute Flash or streaming data, they represent a remote maintenance issue (and, as anyone who’s passed through a major airport can testify, occasionally and embarrassingly crash and end up promoting the Windows infamous blue screen of death instead of flight times). And depending on where they’re placed, they can be a security concern.

A solid-state media player, on the other hand, is great for video, but is limited in its other capacities and typically can’t cope with heavy-duty Flash or data streams.

The hardware choice, as always, is dictated by the application.

Then there’s the software. For its SMB bundle, ViewSonic has partnered with Best Wave LLC, whose server-based software allows users to create and schedule content and distribute it to networked displays.

“This software will not run Dallas-Forth Worth airport,” Woodward says, “but there are thousands of small businesses, schools and other organizations that could use it. It’s designed to be used by a front-office admin.”

Or, perhaps, by a reseller or VAR providing a managed service.

Solution-based selling
“It becomes a solution sell and maintenance,” Nalli notes. “Solution providers offer a monthly maintenance plan for the hardware, content creation and management.”

McLeod agrees. “I think the key to success is to try to sell solutions rather than just hardware,” he says. “We currently see installation, maintenance and integration as most profitable. Resellers that can address that part of the chain will probably make the highest profit.”

And computer resellers should not be intimidated by the technology, Connery adds. “They know about networking and legacy equipment. They thought they didn’t know how to control a display. Yeah, they do – they’ve been controlling displays on PCs for a long time!”

Says Colleen Browne, general manager of ViewSonic Canada, “Every reseller should look at its account base and see where this very easy turnkey solution would fit. We want to show them how easy it is to engage in this market.”

“What if a dentist put a video on tooth whitening in his office,” Woodward suggested. “Prices have come down to the point where it’s $2,500 to $3,000 to buy a system. That’s a reasonable cost for an SMB. Three or four procedures would pay for the system.”

Managing the content
“In retail, even a small pizza shop wants to promote its specials,” Browne adds, noting she’s even heard of a pizza shop that is allowing non-competing neighbouring businesses to advertise on its digital display. Its reseller is selling the ads and managing the content.“We’re seeing a lot of resellers dipping their toes into content management. We have even seen some VARs change their business to managing content,” says Connery. “But the initial value-add is in the installation and merger of AV and IT.”

“It’s something to consider,” says McLeod. “For small local (display) networks, there’s no barrier to entry. We’ve seen small resellers become network operators, managing content, receiving feedback and determining playlists. It’s not a large investment for a small network.”

The first thing the reseller needs to do, he says, is gain an understanding of how the systems work.

“A lot of it they already know,” he says. “There are probably two things with a learning curve: the software available for managing the networks, and the types and sources of content. They probably won’t want to generate content themselves – there are plenty of third parties who can do it for them.”

But, he cautions, people are looking for easy generalizations, and there aren’t any. “It’s a bunch of vertical niches, not one size fits all. At the network operator level, you need a deeper knowledge of the segment you’re working with.”

At the more basic level, existing customer bases can be mined for pent-up demand. “We’ve had calls from resellers whose customers want digital signage,” says Woodward. “It’s a new business for all these folks. With the confluence of factors, it is now a simple, do-able solution to take into their accounts.”