Digital Signage Expo is right around the corner, are you going?


Spring is Digital Signage Expo time.

For me, spring means two things.  It’s almost boating season, and it’s time for the Digital Signage Expo!   While it’s still too early (and cold) to start polishing fiberglass, late March is the perfect time to head down to Las Vegas to catch up on the latest new digital signage technologies.  It’s also a great opportunity to  meet up with clients and partners.  Since most of my interaction happens over the phone or Skype, it’s nice to spend some face time and talk shop.

I attended my first Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas back in 2008.  I also attended the DSE “East” Philadelphia show the same year.  To say DSE has grown since then would be an understatement.  While the DSE East shows were discontinued, the main show in Las Vegas has kept marching on, and it’s still growing today.

It’s a tribute to the strength of our industry that many of the big names in the business are still around and exhibiting after all these years.  Of course, some exhibitors have had a few rough years (looking at you Broadsign), and there have been mergers and acquisitions (Scala – Stratacache, etc.).  Over all, the digital signage industry continues to grow at a rapid pace, and there is a constant stream of new products that bring constant innovation to the sector.

Then there is the city.  Las Vegas is the perfect venue for a digital signage show.  It’s a real-life showcase for LED and every other type of display technologies you can imagine.  It’s inspiring to see what can be achieved when you have the budget.  If you haven’t been to DSE yet, I urge you to consider making the trip.  Everyone in our industry is there and the show is totally focused on digital signage.

There are other, larger shows but DSE is still the place where you will find the latest trends in digital signage technologies.

If you’re coming to the show, be sure to swing by the Navori booth (1929) on March 28 and 29.

Come on over and say hi!


Should digital signage users be worried about the Meltdown and Spectre flaws?

Should you be worried about Meltdown and Spectre?

The new year brought news of two major vulnerabilities that affect a significant number of PCs and devices used in digital signage installations.  The Meltdown and Spectre flaws impact different processors that have been widely used for decades. Should digital signage software users and network operators be worried about Meltdown and Spectre?

What do we know?

It looks like most Intel processors, as well as processors made by AMD, and ARM are affected by one or both flaws.  Meltdown is going to affect mostly Intel based hardware while Spectre will impact pretty well everyone.

Since news of these vulnerabilities came out, computer chip manufacturers have developed, or are in the process of developing, various workarounds and fixes.  The consensus seems to be that any potential fix will impact PC and device performance.  From what I have read, the performance hit won’t be all that noticeable for your typical PC user.  However, anyone who performs intensive computing tasks will probably notice a difference.  Think video editors, and server administrators.

We know that software patches for operating systems and web browsers have been released, and there are more coming.  It’s a good idea to implement these patches as they come out because many digital signage software products are built on web technologies, and many use web browsers to display HTML/HTML5 content.

Since Windows, Linux, Android and Apple OS are all affected, expect to see patches pushed out to your hardware fairly soon.  Those who disable auto-updates by default may want to turn the feature back on so they receive these patches.  You can always turn the feature off later.

What about DS software?

Currently, these threats are going to be handled at the OS and web browser level.  I don’t know of any user installable software that will be patched for these flaws, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  This is where your digital signage software protection plan comes in handy.  Those who don’t subscribe to software assurance plans should take notice.

We are going to be dealing with this for a while, and it won’t be just software patches and security updates.  Computer chip designs will change because of these vulnerabilities.  Until then we all need to remain vigilant, and apply patches as they are released.

Want to read more about this?  Check out this article by Ars Technica.

Adobe Flash is on the way out. Are you ready for it?

Flash software is going away

Adobe Flash is on the way out and it’s been a long time coming.

Flash started out as a popular animated content technology in the early 1990’s and grew into one of the most downloaded web browser plug-ins ever created . I started using the product back when it was first released by a company called FutureWave Software. I loved the way you could create frame based animations (using a technique called “tweening”) and play the content in your web browser, or as stand-alone apps. Over the years, I created all sorts of content in Flash, including an interactive cosmetics kiosk that was used in a few Zellers stores (Canadian retail chain that used to be part of the Hudson’s Bay companies).

I loved the way you could quickly animate content and easily create apps with very little coding. When properly executed, Flash content could be extremely stable (that Zellers kiosk ran bug-free for a few years).

Web designers and developers used Flash for all sorts of projects. During its heydays, Flash was used to create some of the most compelling, and exciting web experiences.  This lasted for years but eventually, problems started to emerge. Web designers had to create all sorts of workarounds for people who didn’t install the Flash plugin on their web browsers. They had to create separate websites which significantly increased the amount of work required to create and maintain increasingly complex websites. There were also many security issues that sent Adobe scrambling to fix.  Eventually, security updates were published on a regular basis which began to take it’s toll on Flash. Then came that famous announcement by Steve Jobs about Apple no longer supporting Flash, and things really started going downhill.

That’s when Flash usage stalled on the web. Meanwhile, games and other non web-centric content developers continued to use Flash as there were no real alternatives. HTML5 wasn’t really out yet so Flash remained the most effective way to deliver rich multimedia content.

We’re now at the point where Flash is about to disappear for good. Adobe is officially retiring Flash in the next couple of years because we have solid alternatives, like HTML5. Notice I’m not saying “better” alternatives. I still think Flash has significant advantages over HTML5 for some types of content. However, it’s not up to me so it’s time to switch.

What’s the impact for digital signage content creators?

The impact will vary depending on your situation. Since the Android Flash Player was retired years ago, networks running on Android media players and tablets have had plenty of time to switch to HTML5 content. They won’t be impacted by this at all.

It’s a different story for those who run networks based on Windows based PCs. Here are a few scenarios:

  • People who rely on data visualization software that generates Flash SWF content will need to find alternatives soon. Flash content is often used for business intelligence dashboards because they are easy to generate and deploy.
  • Software applications that deliver dynamic SWF files will need to be updated or replaced for products that support HTML5.
  • If your Digital Signage Media Player software relies on an older web browser, you may need to get an update from your vendor.  Older browsers don’t fully support HTML5, so they may not play the new content properly.  Note this can affect web browsers on Android too so be sure to check with your vendor.

While a lot of Flash software publishers have already folded or discontinued these products (thinking of you, Flypaper…), there are still some Flash products in use today. It’s up to digital signage users to start looking for alternatives before it’s too late.

It’s worth paying attention to this even if you don’t create your own content, because there are still some paid digital signage content provider who sell products based on Flash.  This content is mostly weather forecasts and news updates that are purchased on annual contracts.  It’s time to ask your content provider if they offer HTML5 versions of their products so you can switch before it becomes a problem.

Adobe has done a good job of delivering software for HTML5 content development and there are tons of good resources out there. There’s really no reason to stick with Flash content any longer.

Out with the old, in with the new!

Updating your digital signage CMS software regularly is important.

Here’s why…

Digital Signage Failure

From Commercial Integrator website:

Not keeping your software updated can bring a false sense of savings, and it’s not worth the trouble. Need convincing? Google “digital signage failure photos” or visit this website.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Security exploits are constantly being released on the internet, and there is no end in sight. Professional CMS software publishers counter these activities by releasing periodic updates with bug fixes and security enhancements.
  • Content formats evolve all the time. New formats become tomorrow’s “standards”, while older technologies fall out of favor and become obsolete. Take for example Adobe Flash which was ubiquitous a few years ago, and is now being replaced by HTML5. While there are still lots of folks cranking out Flash SWF content, the numbers are dropping dramatically and will continue to do so until Adobe shuts down Flash permanently, in a year or two.
  • The best CMS software products regularly introduce new features and enhancements that can shave hours off your work. Workflow improvements can make your team more efficient and save you money.
  • You may think you can postpone updates indefinitely, but don’t really have a choice. At some point you have to update your software just to remain competitive and effective.
  • Most CMS software products work in a server/player configuration. Some have other intermediary apps in between. Be sure to update every component as required by your software vendor. In many cases, you can’t run mis-matched software so be ready to apply all the software patches and follow your vendor’s instructions.
  • Always backup everything before patching your software. I know it sounds silly but some folks don’t think twice about updating software without backing up their existing setup.

I usually tell customers they have to lock-down their software and disable all forms of updates and patches… but you still need to keep your technology up-to-date. I find it’s best to disable automatic operating system updates on media players as long as they are running a firewall and there is no end-user software installed (email clients, for example). Disable every background service that isn’t needed for digital signage content playback to remove potential weaknesses.

However, your digital signage player software should always be updated according to your vendor’s recommendations. That is one piece of advice I think everyone should follow.

Remember these suggestions are aimed at folks who operate their own CMS server. This is not intended for people using cloud based CMS solutions as these products are usually updated by the software provider.  If your cloud based CMS vendor requires you to update your media players individually, then be sure to follow their instructions. I have found most professional cloud CMS products update their media players automatically so you don’t have anything to do. It’s up to you to make sure you follow all of their guidelines.

Maximizing your digital signage training investment

Have you ever attended a digital signage training course or webinar and felt it was a waste of time and money?  Here’s why.

digital signage training can be a good investment

It starts with the user interface

Let’s face it. Software applications can be quite complex and many products require a deep understanding of features hidden inside layers of menus and submenus. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. Software developers create products that should appeal to the largest possible audience. As products age, new features are added to accommodate an evolving marketplace. It’s a bit like a living organism that evolves and adapts over time so it can thrive.

In some cases, new features are integrated “organically” so they don’t really impact the software’s existing workflow. Unfortunately it’s not always the case and you end up with a product that changes drastically and you’re back to square one.

It’s not surprising to find many intuitive user interfaces hide a high level of complexity under a very uncluttered design. The complexity is simply buried deeper within the UI.

Intuitive UIs are great, since most casual users may never need to access the more complex features. They may have a very simple job to do, so all the required features are right where they can see them.

What does this have to do with training?

Folks looking at software training often expect a guided tour where the trainer describes every option and feature from beginning to end. In some cases, this can be perfectly acceptable when you consider there are many features and you want to know how the software works. Sometimes, it makes sense to get in-depth look at everything the software can do. But in many cases this type of training falls flat. Why? Some people get bored and others tune-out, if they can’t keep up with all the information being thrown at them.

You need to ask yourself if this the best use of your training dollars.

If all you’re looking for is a product feature tour, why not check with your software vendor and see if they have training videos you can view online or download. You will save on training fees and you can go over the information as many times as you want.

However, I suggest a different approach if you plan get the most out of your training investment.

First, take the time to review your objectives with your staff. Then, review these objectives with your trainer.

  • What are you looking to get out of your training?
  • What type of users will be attending each session?
    • Technical
    • Administrative
    • Creative
  • How do you plan to use the software?
    • Corporate communications
    • Out-of-home advertising
    • Restaurant menu boards
    • Wayfinding
    • Doctor’s office waiting room
    • Retail advertising

Look for a training partner who is ready to coach your team, not just read from a prepared script. You need someone who can provide the knowledge your staff can actually use. Share the results of your internal audit with the trainer prior to the session so they can focus on the areas that are essential to your specific use of the software.

If you want to optimize the return on your training investment, it really pays talk with the trainer beforehand so you can inform them of your expectations before the training begins.

By doing so, your users will receive more than just information. They will receive useful advice so they can be productive.

How to get the most out of your training

Here are some rules that I like to follow when training people on digital signage software:

  • It’s better to schedule multiple sessions than to try and cram several hours into a single sitting.  People need time to absorb information and spreading the training over a few days lets folks try things out. This way, they will have questions ready for the next session and they will be more engaged in the whole training process.
  • As a rule, my training sessions don’t last over 2 hours. I find extremely long sessions are counter-productive. People get bored and the training loses it’s effectiveness.
  • I like to pause periodically and ask if anyone has questions. Often, people won’t interrupt the trainer so I take the time to break occasionally and give attendees the opportunity to speak up.
  • If you can avoid it, try not to book all your staff into one session. For example, IT specialists will be looking for different information than your administrative or creative teams. Cramming entire teams together to save on training costs is a bad idea. If one group takes over the session, others won’t get the information they need. At worse they may feel alienated and simply tune-out altogether. Best to organize the training into sessions focused on each team’s needs so everyone remains engaged.
  • Ask the trainer to record your training sessions. This way you can review specific topics long after the session has ended.

Live, one-on-one training can be a resounding success, or a missed opportunity. It’s all about developing a relationship with the trainer before the sessions actually begin. Let them know about your needs so they can customize their material for the audience.

Cloud based or on premise software – which is best?

Most digital signage CMS software on the market is marketed in cloud and on premise versions.  Each type has its pros and cons.  Here are some tips on picking the right one for you.

cloud based software

Cloud based CMS

Cloud based CMS software has been popular for a while now, and it seems there are new entries in this space every month.  The reason’s simple.  It’s an affordable way to get a digital signage network launched and it requires a minimum amount of effort.  You don’t need to know anything about servers, backups or DNS hosting.  You just concentrate on creating content and deploying screens.

Those who don’t want to get their hands dirty can even outsource entire hardware installation, so the barrier to entry is very low.

Cloud based CMS gets you…

  • Peace of mind.  You don’t need to worry about daily server operation and maintenance.
  • You save on CAPEX.  There is less equipment to acquire and maintain.
  • You save on labour costs.  Less need for specialized staff.
  • You get started quicker.  Spend less time configuring / debugging servers. More time to work on good content.
  • You can scale your network faster.  Simply deploy new media players as needed.
  • You can concentrate on your core business, whether it is based on ad sales, corporate communications or infotainment.

Who benefits the most of cloud based CMS?

  • Small and medium sized businesses who need to spread their cash around.  They don’t have to spend gobs of money or hire extra staff to get their network off the ground.
  • Individual departments within larger organizations.  These folks treat digital signage as a “skunkworks” project.  Cloud CMS’s low cost means they can deploy a small signage network without having to present a funding proposal to management.
  • Start-ups who need to execute a proof-of-concept before investing in their own server infrastructure.

On Premise CMS

There will always be a market for on premise CMS software.  While Cloud CMS products tend to get a lot of press, on premise products remain popular for the following reasons:

  • Security: You hear this a lot from the financial and governmental sectors.  IT requires the CMS software to be hosted behind the organization’s firewall as a matter of policy or due to technical reasons.
  • Control: Many organizations require total control over the back-end server for various reasons, like: complete user access and rights control, integration with Active Directory or other critical user management system, access to private data for internal dashboards, etc.
  • Recovery: IT Staff can restore a server quickly and make sure all required content is accessible, in case of hardware or software failure.
  • Performance and scalability: By having full control over the CMS hardware and software, IT personnel can monitor application performance and add resources as necessary.

On premise CMS software can be run on physical servers, or on company managed virtual machines in any location.

So what are the downsides of on premise CMS products?

  • Up front capital required to purchase the hardware and software needed for the project. CAPEX will be proportional to the network size and media storage requirements.
  • Ongoing annual fees for support and maintenance contracts.
  • In some cases, IT staffing levels may need to be increased to deal with the additional workload.
  • Additional training required for IT personnel and software administrators.


The verdict?

Digital signage isn’t a “one size fits all” proposition.

As a rule, cloud CMS offerings cost less to launch but there are recurring monthly fees – in perpetuity.  You can scale up or down, but there will be a monthly fee for as long as you operate your screens.  A lot of the complexity is removed because a third party is managing it for you.

On premise offerings cost more to set-up initially and there are no monthly fees.  There may be an annual maintenance and support fee but for the most part, you buy the software and that’s it.  Installing and maintaining your on premise CMS software is a more involved proposition but you have total control over your environment.

Regardless of the option you choose, pick your CMS vendor / partner wisely.  Chances are, you’ll be dealing with them for a long, long time.


Not everyone likes your touchscreen kiosk

touch screen ordering kiosk

Rising minimum wages and shrinking profits have sent quick service restaurants looking for savings. Since labour costs represents such a large chunk of operating expenses, many national QSR chains are are considering interactive ordering kiosks to improve their bottom line.  Kiosk proponents speak about increasing efficiency and reducing ordering errors while some argue this is mostly about cutting staff.

This posting isn’t about debating the pros and cons of ordering kiosks, but rather to investigate the risks involved when implementing such a new technology.  It’s important to consider the impact of these devices because poorly designed kiosk can alienate customers and mess up a perfectly good customer experience.

On the positive side, McDonald’s has been rolling out ordering kiosks for a couple of years and the feedback has been mostly positive.

While some are worried this will lead to job losses, the company insists employees will be reassigned to other duties which should improve customer service.

I have used some of these kiosks with mixed results.  Unless you’re a frequent McDonald’s customer, you may get lost as you go through pages of information while trying to complete your order.  Since I’m no millennial, “your mileage may vary….”. 

So, what makes an interactive ordering session break down.

The ordering application must be responsive.  No one wants to poke at a screen and nothing happens.  Interactive ordering screens need to provide instant feedback otherwise customers get frustrated and they leave the store.  If you’re lucky, they may switch to another line so they can place their order with a live person, at which point it’s no longer a positive experience.

It shouldn’t feel like you’re working at placing a food order.  The process should be effortless and quick so the ordering path is critical.  You want to make sure the ordering interface is as simple and efficient as possible.  This means grouping products in a logical way and making sure customers can complete an order in the least number of steps.  Designing interactive applications may be a science but it’s also common sense.

With all this complexity, It’s no wonder many QSR chains have been slow to adopt interactive ordering kiosks.  Subway restaurants fall under the late adopter category with plans to start rolling out the technology as part of a complete store redesign.

This Gizmodo article goes over potential negative impacts of switching to touchscreens for the sandwich chain.

Subway obviously wants to rebrand itself and it’s looking at technology to appeal to a young customer base.  But the way they are implementing these changes may turn off people who are used to the personal interaction with their local “sandwich artist”.

It’s great to see QSR chains invest in technology so they can remain relevant, but these changes should always take into account what has made the brand special.  With Subway, it’s interacting with the person behind the counter as they put together your sandwich.  Take this away and Subway is no different than a burger shop where your meal is prepared and packaged out of sight.  The whole experience becomes less personal and less inviting.

Thinking of introducing new technology in your restaurant?  Be sure to take into account what makes your store different.  What are you best known for.  What do customers like about your business.  Then, use new technology to augment and improve the positives.

Technology is great at removing complexity, but it can also be impersonal and cold.  If you’re planning to introduce ordering kiosks in your store, be sure they are responsive, easy to use and add value.

Business intelligence dashboards are worth looking into

Digital signage applications are constantly evolving, and the latest “hot” trend is business intelligence dashboards (BI).  Companies are constantly looking for better ways to gather and present internal data.  The goal is to deliver useful insights to stakeholders so they can make better decisions.

Digital content designers are taking notice.  For example, ConnectedSign recently released a new set of BI dashboards for corporate applications.  Early on, ConnectedSign recognized the need for professional design esthetics in digital signage content development.  Over the years, the company has gained a long list of corporate and government clients who have come to rely on their design expertise, so focusing on BI dashboards made perfect sense.ConnectedSign home pageConnectedSign designers built a library of templates that are geared towards business professionals.  With this new offering, businesses of any size can take advantage of the same tools used by Fortune 500 corporations.  These BI dashboards let entrepreneurs,  business managers, and staff receive critical information in real-time so they can react quicker.

Well designed BI dashboards make critical data jump out, so people notice and pay attention. Insights that used to be buried inside spreadsheets and databases can be interpreted using colorful charts and graphics that command attention.  Alerts are displayed when specific thresholds are met, triggering eye-catching visuals that prompt the viewer to act (sales below expectations, inventory levels abnormally high…).

BI Dashboards can also reward good performance, highlighting a particularly good quarter or well executed promotional campaign.

Any business can benefit from this type of content.

Full disclosure… I work with the ConnectedSign team.


It pays to buy professional content


plan your content well

Ever wonder why it pays to spend money on professional content?  Read on…

There are lots of folks out there investing time and money on digital signage.  Many won’t think twice about spending on displays, software, network cabling…  all the bits and pieces needed to get screens in front of people.  You’d think content would be at the top of that list, but in many cases you would be wrong.

People hate paying for content.  Any content.  They just flat out hate it.  I know, I hear it all the time.

Content is at the heart of digital signage, yet few people want to spend money on it.  It’s like pictures will magically appear on the screens after you turn them on.  Mission accomplished!

Well, if you’re budgeting for a digital project and you don’t factor in the cost of content, you’re doing it wrong.  If you only cost-out the software to run your screens and schedule your content, you’re missing the point.  Unless you have staff who are ready to feed your new screens with high quality content, and update the content regularly, you won’t have anything good to show on your screens.  The audience will keep looking at their smartphones as they walk by your shiny new TVs.  #Sad.

You may think you can google search your way to “free” content.  You may think you can grab a few  RSS feeds from various news outlets.  Read the fine print.  Unless the content is covered under a Creative Commons licence authorizing free use, you can’t use it without written authorization from the copyright holder.  It’s about as legal as copying a Hollywood blockbuster on a DVD.

Here’s another way to look at it.  You buy a car, you expect to pay for the gas needed to run it.  Think of paid content as the “gas” for your screens.  It’s what makes them run.

There are plenty of ways to acquire professional, curated content legally and it usually involves some form of subscription.  So if you’re thinking you can get away with a $20 or $30 monthly Cloud CMS player software fee, you’re probably $5 or $10 short.

Paying for content is smart.

  • You get professional content that is licensed for redistribution.
  • You get content that is updated periodically (sometimes even daily) so all the work is done for you.
  • The content is well written.  The graphics and videos are at the correct resolution.  It’s high-quality and professional content.
  • The content provider is responsible for ensuring the content is always available and refreshed.
  • You usually pay a fee per player, per month so it’s easy to calculate your costs and scale as you grow your network.
  • Your audience is engaged and entertained.

There are many sources for professional, paid content.  You can get news, sport scores, trivia, weather…

Here are a few suggestions:

Digital signage screens are only as effective as the content you play on them.  If you rely on information scraped from around the web you will get poor results.  It doesn’t matter if you are deploying one screen or a thousand.  It pays to have someone else do the work for you.  There is a cost for this service, but the return is well worth it.

Check out the Sixteen:Nine interview of Jerome Moeri, CEO of Navori Labs

Jerome Moeri, CEO of Navori Labs talks about his company, and the future of the digital signage industry.

Jerome Moeri, CEO of Navori Labs

I came across a recent interview of Jerome Moeri, CEO of Navori Labs on David Haynes’ Sixteen:Nine podcast.  In this episode, Mr. Moeri talks about the company’s history and provides some insights into its future.  He also shares his thoughts about the digital signage industry as a whole, and how the market is evolving.  Navori Labs may not be well known outside the industry, but it’s a thriving global business based on a solid software platform.

About Navori

Navori Labs is a Swiss based software development company that has been totally dedicated to the digital signage market since it’s inception, 20 years ago.  Navori Labs is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland and the company has offices in Montreal, Canada; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Navori Labs has in excess of 100,000 licenses in the field and a thriving Cloud business.

The company currently supports PCs running on Microsoft Windows, Google Android devices, and System on Chip (SoC) displays.

I have had the opportunity to work closely with Navori for the past 13 years, and continue to support the company’s efforts in North America by providing consulting services for their products.