The browser is slowly taking over as the user interface and connectivity platform for Unified Communications (UC). Voice, video and content sharing are all available from your browser, whenever you want. There is no longer a need for special applications to be installed on your devices allowing you to communicate with others. Less plugins and add-ons allow the browser to enable these types of programs and more native browser code enables the applications to work across browsers. UC technology is moving to the browser, this trend is gaining momentum and it makes sense.
Using a browser makes it easier for businesses to connect with consumers right from their web pages without having to worry about having an app like Skype or Facetime installed on the user’s device. For users, having the browser as the common tool for accessing applications, web content and UC makes life simpler because there is no need for specialized applications for each task.
Digital Signage is Moving from a Player Based to an Open Web Based Architecture
In a previous blog on the Next Phase of the Digital Signage Market, I discussed how the 2nd phase of the corporate digital signage market is characterized by the ability of the digital display platform (DDP – an evolution from just digital signage) to be open.
Phase 1 of the digital signage market on the other hand, was characterized by what I call a Player Based Architecture (PBA). The development of this market was described in this blog. The key feature of this architecture is the focus on the player that is attached locally to each screen. The player software and often the player hardware are proprietary. This approach solved a lot of IT scarcity issues as the market for digital signage developed, but today this approach has limitations within the enterprise that are not easily managed across the organization.
The Player Based Architecture has led to:
- A fragmented marketplace with 100’s of solutions confusing buyers looking for a corporate solution
- Departmental decisions being made for digital signage solutions and corporations who now find themselves with numerous digital signage providers that cannot be reconciled into a single platform
- Almost no interoperability between players and content systems from one vendor to another. They are totally isolated silos.
- The user departments mentioned above in #2 wanting to move the support of the digital signage solution they purchased from their department to IT, because it is an IT solution
- Corporate customers who want to leverage the network of digital displays across their organization as a single platform that is capable of digital signage and much more
The Browser is a Key Piece of Unifying IP Technologies
An open digital display platform (DDP) that is IP based allows customers to use the DDP for digital signage and much more:
- You can switch from digital signage being displayed on the digital screens to any other content – easily, centrally, without additional hardware, cables or manual intervention at the screen location
- Other IT platforms can easily integrate to the DDP
- Live streams – Telepresence, broadcast, webcasts, webcams, etc.
- Internet of Things systems – Security cameras, fire alarm systems, etc. ( here is a blog by Geoff Mulligan, “Interoperability Is Key to Unlocking the Internet of Everything” which underscores this point)
- Live database updates – SQL, Oracle, etc.
- Potentially thousands of web widgets and content sources developed by hundreds of companies
- Any other Internet compatible content
Looking at what is happening in IT from an architectural point-of-view, the browser is becoming the focal point and the common platform for:
- User interface
- Common development languages and tools
A web based architecture (WBA) makes a real open system. The browser and IP are the unifying technologies.
More and more technologies are moving to the browser. Unified Communications (UC) is a perfect example. In a recent blog on Skype and Skype for Business coming together, I wrote about how Microsoft also seems to be heading in the direction of the browser despite their massive base of Skype application users. UC is moving to the browser, via WebRTC. The browser is where the market is heading, and by taking advantage of this trend, you will simplify your systems, save money and speed deployment.
An Open, Web Based Architecture
The transition to a digital signage open, web architecture means using the browser as the player software, instead of proprietary software. Moving to a web based architecture has lots of advantages:
- Players – Your choice of player widens substantially and costs go down
- Capabilities – As the browser manufacturers enable more and more features within them, programmers in turn, can build richer capabilities within their browser code
- Browser choice – software that runs in a browser can easily run on any standard browser – Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.
- Compatibility with other technologies that use a web based architecture, e.g. UC, Internet of Things. This allows what were formerly islands of technology to easily connect with each other.
- Improvements to the browser are occurring constantly and cost the consumer nothing at all. When the browser software clients are improved, updates are easily deployed.
Let’s use a very simple example to illustrate the freedom and capability that a WBA can provide over a PBA. Almost everyone is familiar with YouTube.
What if you wanted to play a YouTube video as part of your digital signage Show? If you were using a PBA, you would first, have to figure out if the player software would support playing a YouTube video. Many would not. But the progressive PBAs have built some capability into their player software to handle some web content.
Not any web content, but some web content. Player software is not a browser. It is a custom made application. The app may have enabled some browser like capability within the player application, but it certainly would not have the full capability of a browser. An analogy would be, Microsoft enabling some Internet Explorer capability within Word. They could certainly enable some browser functionality in Word, but Word would never be like Internet Explorer or Edge, Microsoft’s new browser.
What happens when you click on a YouTube video on your PC or mobile?
The video begins to play – right away, and the video stream starts to buffer while you are watching the video. This same simple process does not happen on your digital sign with a PBA, assuming that it is capable of supporting a YouTube video. The PBA must first stream the entire YouTube video to the player software client. Then the player software has to incorporate the YouTube video into it and initiate the play of the new Show that contains the YouTube video. This whole process can take a while.
In a Web Based Architecture, the browser is the player software. So when you tell a Show to start playing a YouTube video it does so immediately just like playing a YouTube video from a browser on your PC. With a WBA, you can also:
- Update just a part of the Show with new content without having to first stream and then restart the Show
- You can immediately start playing a new Show without having to first stream and then restart the new Show
- Play any kind of Internet content without requiring modifications to the player software
- Track playback of any content on the player using simple cookies and audit trails
- Cache content on the player using the latest Application Cache features of HTML5, to continue playing even when the network fails
Your Greatest Strength, Is Your Greatest Weakness
The greatest strength of a WBA for digital displays is that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and others will continue to develop and enable the browser with more functionality and capability. This will make a WBA architecture even more powerful over time and since browser software is free, you won’t have to pay for any of these improvements.
This can also be a disadvantage, because you are at the mercy of the companies who own the browsers to continue to enable them with greater functionality. In the first phase of the digital signage market the WBA was at a disadvantage, because browser functionality was limited and so was network capacity and availability. Those limitations are no longer there, but each of the different browsers has its own quirks. You can mitigate the quirks as you become more familiar with options and tools.
I believe that the digital signage market will become dominated by solutions that are based on web standards and Internet Protocol. That is where other technology is heading and digital signage needs to interact with these technologies in order to continue evolving as a platform.