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While the storm system now known as Icepocalypse stranded would-be flyers across most of the East Coast leading up to Valentine's Day, the majority of the digital signage world was enjoying shirtsleeve weather in the Nevada desert at Digital Signage Expo 2014. It was a whirlwind three days, with the progression of events and activities unfolding as expected.

As always, the folks from Exponation did a terrific and professional job of organization and execution. I did not have the time (thankfully) to walk the entire floor, so I will leave the reviews of what is new and what isn't to others. The rumors and gossip were as prevalent (and much more interesting) than the endless press releases. My own observation from it all is that leaders who have built and executed a great strategy, and more importantly focused upon creating a great company, have prospered. Those who have prioritized financial strategies and exits over customers, or have succumbed to opportunism, have generally found the brass ring to be out of their reach. That will become self-evident soon enough. Or maybe not soon enough.

At our own booth, we engaged in a number of very interesting conversations, and not just about the same old thing. People responded extremely well to the notion that small is the new big, and many new ideas and use cases came out of those discussions. We also talked a lot about Near Field Communications, or NFC, something that has been discussed a few times (here, here and here) in this space ... No, NFC is not new, as evidenced by the dates of the above-referenced posts. And yes, until Apple embraces NFC (iPhone 6, please?), the true tipping point of usage is unlikely to materialize. Nevertheless, it is being increasingly adopted, especially outside of North America, and the rate is accelerating. Ironically, the clamor over Apple's iBeacon and other BLE approaches may be helping to bring people around to NFC. Despite some apparent security issues, many of the Apple acolytes believe that iBeacon may be Apple's "answer" to NFC, but the jury is decidedly still out on that. In fact, if it becomes as pervasive as some expect, the default setting for most people's smartphone Bluetooth will very likely become "off."

Here's a big reason why:

Like the unavoidable, annoying purveyors of escort service handbills on the Las Vegas Strip (What is it with that slapping thing they do?), iBeacons everywhere will become tiresome. If you walk by a group of these analog spammers (iBarkers?) you will notice all the handbills that passersby have dropped on the ground. The only way to opt out of the handbill guy is to stare off into a place above his head and pretend you don't see him ... or his eight colleagues within a 10-yard walk. While many applications of iBeacon will be clever and useful, the thought of being bombarded as you walk down a street or through a mall is chilling. It will be like checking your spam folder in the morning for the overnight offers from Eastern Europe. Parenthetically, the spammers have featured a great many offers of Russian brides ever since the Sochi games began. You can't say they don't try to make their content relevant!

The fact is that NFC is 100-percent opt-in by definition: You see something of interest, and you initiate the transaction. This sets it apart from the BLE approaches. A great infographic published on MobilePaymentsToday.com provides good insight on all of the distinctions between the two technologies. It is well worth having a look. I should take a moment and give credit to Steve Gurley, with whom I have had philosophical differences over the years, especially with regard to the future of digital signage. Steve is now founder and CEO at Pyrim Technologies, where he is able to channel his passion for all things mobile, and he contributed to the infographic. Nice job, Steve ... and we are still here.

I talk so often about digital signage being a one-to-many vehicle that I occasionally wonder if I am getting senile and repetitive. But it is true, especially with large-format screens, that digital signage is generally meant to engage many people at one time. The ability to have a call to action on that digital display create an opt-in, one-to-one extension of the engagement on consumers' own smartphones is not new as a point of potential convergence. However, the ability to deploy NFC tags once and link them repeatedly to on-screen content in real time is potentially transformative. It creates opportunities and solves problems.

In the world of digital signage, mobile convergence is something that is talked about as often as industry consolidation is. Both have seemed inevitable for some time now, and both appear to be picking up steam. I'm all for it. If problems are getting solved, then it will be a good thing for everyone.

(This is a slightly condensed version of Ken's original blog post here.)

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Steve Gurley
    Ken, knock me down with a feather! Thanks for the objectivity and the shout out. FYI, be sure to read the companion white paper, it goes into much more detail on the differences between the iBeacon (BLE) and NFC. Here's the link. http://bit.ly/1if4WZJ Regarding the future of digital signage, I've always been a proponent. For years, however, I've been raising the read flag that certain sectors would be (and are) seriously threatened by mobile. I explain this a recent blog post: http://bit.ly/1mKxP62 I have also been a huge advocate for convergence. Shoot, when I was at Symon, we were controlling screens with cell phones, extending digital signage content to smartphones, using DS content management systems to deliver location based content to smartphones and managing content to NFC-based digital signage engagements for years. Before I went to work for Symon, we were filing patents on mobile/digital signage convergence dating back to 2005. It's interesting to see the industry is just catching on to what's been transpiring for many, many years. While I have historically focused on convergence in general, there is a new mobile revolution underway that stands to further threaten the viability of certain sectors of digital signage, you'll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks/months. I only hope this time the DS industry pays attention rather than wait until this new trends starts to eat its lunch. Again, thanks for the shout out. Oh.... two last points: 1) it's good to see you advocating convergence!!! 2) Don't count out NFC. There are some micro trends occurring that will change the landscape and prospects for NFC adoption... regardless of what Apple does.
  • Gabriel Marcus
    Utter nonsense. iBeacon is also fully opt-in, you have to download the corresponding app for it to work, accept location tracking and have Bluetooth on. Fed up with the notification behaviour of some app? Delete that app or turn off it's notifications. Oh and by the way NFC also has security issues, I guess you forgot those.. I guess you just misunderstand the technology. I'd suggest a good catch up because you'll need it after you see the figures on BLE vs NFC user engagement. Have a great day!
  • Ken Goldberg
    In strict terms, I suppose you are correct, Gabriel, and thank you for the clarification. But you conveniently overlook the inherent difference between push and pull, and what would seem to me to be a normal preference for the latter in this age of creepy, data-driven offers. I think that distinction is non-trivial, or will prove to be so. I am sure we think differently on many topics, including what defines normal, or the wisdom of providing a retailer (or anyone else) the ability to track my movements just because I have opted to receive iBeacon messages I may or may not always value. But those differences are what makes the world go 'round... it is all good. Thank you for reading and commenting, both entirely opt-in actions. Differing opinions and viewpoints make the conversation more interesting and engaging. I'm not sure anybody really knows what the end game is, but my own viewpoint as a consumer is that many people will tire of opting to sacrifice privacy in order to have a data-based conversation with a server. Because for every purveyor of iBeacon engagement who does it well and deserves a modicum of trust, there will very likely be dozens that don't.
  • Gabriel Marcus
    Ken that would be a good point perhaps in nineties, but we're now in a age where retailers are already tracking you inside their stores unknowingly via WiFi and facial recognition on their CCTV streams - iBeacon is the least of anyone's worries. iBeacon is something people can actually control and choose to use or not. It is simply an extension of the old style of geofencing based on GPS coordinates that apps were already making use of anyway! Ultimately the ease of use and immediate location context of iBeacon provide a great convenience to users compared to NFC and far overweight any potential tracking fears. I see this "OMG they're tracking us" as just loud noise from dinosaurs stuck in NFC times and afraid to embrace new, beneficial, technology. My organisation looks especially at the needs of disabled/people with poor vision/poor mobility who wouldn't be able to use NFC anyway since they wouldn't find the tag to tap. Seen from the perspective of this market segment NFC doesn't even need apply.
  • Steve Gurley
    Not sure how iBeacon and BLE beacons work? Think NFC is no longer relevant? Wonder what a complementary BLE / NFC use-case would look like? Read this white paper: http://bit.ly/1if4WZJ Want an in-depth explanation of NFC? Like to understand NFC use cases? Want to know more about NFC-based mobile payments? Read this white paper: http://bit.ly/154Ec9N Like to know how in-store location services, mobile marketing, mobile wallets and mobile payments will ultimately negate the value of Merchandising-based digital signage? Like to know what the digital signage industry can do to limit the threat and capitalize on the change? Read this white paper: http://bit.ly/1bzYRVj Want to learn why having a high mobile IQ has become a critical success factor for any digital signage provider? Read this white paper: http://bit.ly/HQpevK Like to know more, feel free to contact me.
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Latest posts by Ken Goldberg
Ken Goldberg
The CEO for Real Digital Media since 2004, Ken is considered a thought leader in the digital signage space and an expert in retail technology, operations and customer management. Before joining RDM, he was co-founder and president of CFT Consulting, a member of Answerthink's leadership team and a manager in Deloitte's national retail practice. He started his career as an equities analyst at Standard & Poor's, and had been an executive in a 21-store apparel chain.
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