Marketers staying on the leading edge of digital signage technology no doubt have been receiving an onslaught of information touting the virtues of “all encompassing” display screens with embedded media players — i.e. “media-player-minus” displays — and how they improve performance, safety and simplify the installation of digital signage. With this so-called advancement some even feel that the external digital signage player has been made obsolete.

However, an embedded digital signage media player is just that “an embedded media player.” It’s still doing the same job as the external media player and therefore, no real “technology advancement” has been made other than a physical relocation of the same package. So let’s hold off on that funeral.

The checkered past of “embedded” “AIO” devices

The highway of tech failure is littered with “all in one” (AIO) gadgets that seemed like a great idea, but failed miserably in practice. Recent embedded devices have been added to this pile-up with the rejection of such notables as all-in-one PCs; Smart TVs with built-in browsers; flat screens on refrigerators; Cars with built-in GPS; Camera-phones vs DSLRs; DVD/TV combos; the infamous Swiss Army knife and then there’s even a nail clipper-ballpoint pen combo.

Why did they not survive?

All-in-one PCs really brought the limitations of a built-in system to the masses — one thing goes wrong and you are on the hook for replacing the whole system as opposed to a component-based computer where you can buy what you need. Needless to say that such PCs have always been ridiculously underpowered for any serious PC usage.

Smart TVs with built-in browsers have issues when service providers (Netflix, Amazon, etc..) deliver an update. Browser streaming of content is almost always buffering due to limited system memory shared with the embedded browsers. Meanwhile, independent devices like Roku and Apple TV constantly add more features and perform without a problem.

The refrigerator-flat screen combo was an odd one, and it’s not worth paying a premium price to acquire. Most potential customers of this pricey refrigerator already have a smartphone, tablet or laptop within reach. It’s not necessary to slap yet another computer onto the fridge.

Do you remember the last time your built-in GPS was updated in your car? Neither do we. A system made to work only with your car is difficult to update. It’s likely you are driving around with outdated maps and feeling the frustration.

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DSLR cameras have enjoyed solid sales growth despite improvements to camera phones. Sure, those camera phones wiped out the low-end market, but anyone looking for quality images and flexibility in operations continue to gravitate toward DSLRs

Beta was eliminated by VHS. The DVD took out VHS. Blu-ray made the DVD look fuzzy and soon, Blu-rays will be knocked out by the speed, ease and quality of online downloads (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). If you had a TV/VHS combo, that TV was probably still a good working device when the VHS was skunked. Were you happy to replace both?

The Swiss Army Knife — it’s a wonderful tool, and even though we all own one, we still have dozens of “real” knives and more user-friendly scissors around the house.

And let’s not even discuss clipping your nails and writing a letter at the same time. C’mon man!

All of the aforementioned problems could be coming your way as the new built-in digital signage player / AIO display screen proliferate the market. As new technologies emerge with newer apps, widgets, users will be stuck with an inflexible product that must be completely replaced.

Did someone say shortcomings?

Upgrades – Technology is always moving. More and more, we see the reality that only existed in science fiction come to life. New and more innovative ways to broadcast an effective message are constantly being developed.

When you install an embedded display system, you are locked into the technologies developed by that particular company. Vendor options for “media-player-minus” displays are about 2 or 3. These vendors’ bottom lines and R&D are driven by their consumer electronics businesses, NOT digital signage. Digital signage is not their priority, which means your investment is not their priority.

Good luck.

Troubleshooting – Embedded devices mean everything lives within one package. While that sounds neat and tidy, it also means that when a single piece breaks, the whole system is going to the shop. If an external media player fails, you simply swap out the old unit for a new media player, while the old one is being repaired. The message rolls on during repairs. Servicing a 55″ panel vs. returning/exchanging a small signage/media player presents a significant difference.

And those breakdowns will happen –Anyone running an enterprise-grade system knows that it is not an average desktop computer. Enterprise-grade digital signage systems run heavy-duty videos, big audio and they generate big heat. An embedded digital signage media player, tucked away inside a video board, is really designed to accommodate basic functions of minimal slideshow playback. Pushing the capabilities will no doubt lead to more heat (read more damage and a shorter lifespan) than the system can handle over a long period of time.

What about real capability?
Fully functional digital signage needs the complete capabilities of a stand-alone digital signage player. Think tablet vs. laptop vs. desktop. You cannot expect a tablet to perform like a laptop. If simply rolling a short digital video or photo loop covers what’s needed, then using an embedded player may suffice. As campaigns and the tastes of the audience continually evolve, exactly what that signage can do will change as well. Signage requirements change over a period of months not weeks. What may start of a simple slideshow digital signage screen now, could very quickly evolve into a multi-zone, multi-user signage network. Flashing pictures will not be enough.

Delivering dynamic content, from multiple sources, will become critical to the success or failure of a campaign and the signage investment itself. Without the functionality, digital signage loses the ability to not only offer the message, but to interact as well. That interactivity matters to younger folks in the demographic where the ability to get what they want from advertising is now the expectation and not just a nifty trick.

This is also a diverse audience who expects to be targeted individually, which requires localized content, scheduling and synchronization. Once again, marketers will ask a digital signage media player to do more than simply rotate through images.

…and interactivity from a robust system?
As the targeted demographic becomes more savvy with technology, expectations rise in the delivery of communication. Interactivity matters to a large population in America known as millennials. You’ve heard of this gang right? More than 80 million Americans fit this demographic and Accenture reported that they spend approximately $600 billion annually, a number expected to increase to $1.4 trillion per year by 2020.

To capture this demographic, you need an expansive array of capability to offer a message that will stick. For an interactive display, the communication comes from the video, audio and responsiveness of the touch screen. Something has to be able to run all of that functionality and this calls for content that comes from various sources through the media player.

All those connections need a place to land. An embedded player will likely be designed only for a few purposes and it will not accommodate all of your great ideas. Before you decide what digital signage media player you want, give yourself flexibility.

Growing with the system

Flexibility not only gives you the ability to take on the most creative communications campaigns, it will extend the life of your equipment. It means buying exactly what you need while leaving yourself room to grow by upgrading a few pieces instead of the entire setup.

A real, enterprise-grade digital signage media player can accommodate a wide range of hardware and software and still deliver the best performance including the ability to pull in content from multiple sources both “local” and “external.”

True and fully functioning embedded products usually tend to be more expensive, since they aim/hope to include multiple features. The overall cost of integration/convergence also adds to the price. However, in order to remain competitive, companies will use lower powered embedded components and systems, so as to be able to maintain their price competitiveness. These low-powered embedded systems are designed to fill a very specific need and little else.

As needs evolve and more is expected from such a digital signage player, you may find yourself replacing an entire system. On the other hand, a solid external player will provide an effective way to play and schedule content no matter where it is stored.

Don’t trap your business inside an embedded system.