Photo frames vie to be ‘third screen’ at home

The lowly digital photo frame is emerging as a connected “third screen” at home, and the product's evolution has chip suppliers, consumer electronics companies and even wireless carriers seeing dollar signs.

Connected digital photo frames drew crowds at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week saw a host of cellular carriers in hot pursuit of the platform. New models from leading digital photo frame OEMs are slated to debut in March at the PMA (Photo Marketing Association) International Convention.

Stephen Tomlin, CEO of Chumby Industries, has called the digital photo frame “a new class of personal consumer device that [is] neither PC nor mobile phone.”

Click on image to enlarge.

But is it? Perhaps, with caveats. Wirelessly connected digital photo frames, sources said, stand to succeed as a new consumer class if they can avoid the usual snares: feature creep, complicated interfaces and pricing that overshoots consumers' expectations.

Developers and marketers are already proposing a dizzying array of variations on the concept: a kitchen countertop TV/radio or a bedroom alarm clock to a messaging board on a fridge, a home voice-over-Internet Protocol phone, and even a femtocell-embedded digital photo frame to extend phone coverage in the home. The only common denominator is an electronic frame able to display a consumer's treasured images.

Marvell is among the companies talking about the emerging consumer category in breathless terms. “A major revolution is happening,” said Kishore Manghnani, vice president for application processors at the company's consumer and computing business group, calling the digital photo frame “the first member of [a new category of] connected consumer devices.”

The new photo frames can now tap processing power–at consumer-friendly prices–that rivals or even betters that of notebooks and smart phones, along with Wi-Fi capability and even 3G data cards. Marvell recently rolled out an application processor based on its Sheeva CPU core, running at up to 1.2 GHz. Manghnani said the company developed the device for the connected digital photo frame market, which Marvell believes is “just about to take off.”

Similarly, Richard Yeh, marketing director for Samsung Semiconductor Inc.'s System LSI Business, believes the digital picture frame could become “the centerpiece of the connected home.” Samsung is pushing its own processor, based on an ARM11 core and on-chip JPEG/2-D/3-D hardware, for the market.

RMI Corp.'s Alchemy processor, built around a MIPS32-based core, has been designed into numerous digital photo frames. RMI calls connected digital photo frames “home media players” and describes HMPs as “networked interactive devices with integrated displays.” Richard Miller, chief strategy officer, describes HMPs as a strictly consumer category that excludes “productivity products that require a keyboard and mouse to be usable.”

Typically expected in a new digital photo frame are a faster processor, in excess of 800 MHz; high-performance graphics and a fluid, icon-oriented user interface; support for a variety of video formats (such as H.264, MPEG-2, VC-1 and Adobe Flash) and widgets; a touchscreen; Wi-Fi; and a real-time operating system for faster response.

Pandigital's 15-inch LCD kitchen-counterop frame offers an HDTV, digital cookbook and Net access

Manghnani said a few major OEMs and carriers are asking Marvell to support Android, “to tap into a whole new ecosystem of open-source applications.”

Who needs it?

The new digital photo frame is a portable product, but it is not “mobile”; it's designed to “sit on a table rather than be carried around,” said iSuppli senior analyst Sheri Greenspan. To acknowledge the frame's expanding role, Greenspan suggests a name change “from 'digital photo frame' to 'digital media frame.' “

The question is whether consumers will “get” the concept and then want to purchase the product.

Certainly, a photo frame (digital or otherwise) is a notion that any proud grandparent can grasp. But that's a potential minus as well as a plus: Many consumers think of a digital photo frame as an accessory to be purchased from a retailer's housewares department, loaded with photos, placed in the den or given as a gift, and then largely forgotten. As such, the frame should require no sophistication on the user's part to set it up (or on the vendor's part to market it). But that raises the issue of how many users are even inerested in connecting their frames to the Internet.

Indeed, in 2008, according to Parks Associates senior analyst Harry Wang, only 3.2 percent of the digital photo frames sold were Wi-Fi connected–down from 2007's 4 percent. Wang put the dip in context, noting that high global growth for the digital frame market overall last year might have stolen some of the connected units' thunder and that the recession took its toll. “Consumers traded down during the second half of 2008,” said Wang.

Another telling finding of the Parks Associates research is that 69 percent of users in the United States in 2007 had received their frames as gifts. There are upsides to gift-item status: A certain volume of sales can be relied upon, and owners who are not entirely happy with the product are less inclined to return it. The downside is that gift recipients are prone to indifference toward the product. One chip-vendor executive cited a separate market study indicating that 40 percent of consumers given a digital photo frame as a gift had never bothered to plug it into a wall socket.

Worse, the typical consumer admits that getting photos into the frame is “confusing” or “hard.” While it's possible to download pictures by inserting a solid-state memory card into the back of the frame, “you do get tired of preloaded pictures,” said Chumby's Tomlin. Thus the killer app for connected digital photo frames is “photo sharing” over the Web, Tomlin said.

RMI's home media player chip can drive a connected digital photo frame user interface like this one

But that poses the danger of even greater user confusion and frustration, warned Parks Associates' Wang.

It's been reported that low-quality frames sometimes cannot handle different types of Wi-Fi routers. And configuring even a higher-quality frame for user with a home network is not a straightforward process.

Then there's the possibility that a power disruption will take down the network. “How does one get the digital photo frame up and running again? It's a nightmare for older consumers,” warned Wang.

That might explain why cellular carriers are pursuing an opportunity of their own, pitching 3G data cards that plug into digital frames.

“The big problem carriers solve is connectivity,” said RMI's Miller. “Consumers would not need to type in the WEP [Wired Equivalency Privacy] password, as they would if a digital photo frame were connected to a Wi-Fi router at home.” The downside, Miller said, “is high cost and low bandwidth.”

Eastman Kodak Co., one of the most recognized brands in the U.S. digital photo frame market, currently offers seven models, two of which are Wi-Fi-enabled. The connected frames “don't sell as well as the rest [of the digital frames in Kodak's line], because wireless frames are still evolving,” said Jack Rieger, the company's product line manager for digital photo frames.

Pandigital, a fast-growing digital photo frame company in Dublin, Calif., has taken a different approach. Seventeen of its 22 models are “connect ready,” but only when a consumer plugs a wireless dongle into the frame through a USB jack. The company also offers one 10.4-inch frame that's embedded with a wireless transceiver and requires no wireless dongle.

“Only 6 percent of consumers in our national survey demanded wireless as of last October,” said Dean Finnegan, Pandigital's CEO. “The consumer has not yet been given a good reason to demand the feature.”

If companies are to reap reasonable volumes in wireless frames, Kodak's Rieger said, “consumers first need to understand what [the product] does and what it's capable of doing.” Wi-Fi can be tapped to stream digital pictures stored in a PC to the digital frame, update the photos stored, and let users download images from online photo-sharing services such as Kodak Gallery, he noted.

Now that Pandigital offers e-mail client capability in its frames to let users mail pictures directly to a connected frame, it's betting that “the consumer will start demanding connected frames,” said Finnegan. He predicted that 40 percent of digital photo frame sales by late 2010 will embed wireless functionality.

Digital photo frame vendors are looking to wireless connectivity to buck a downward price trend for the category overall. As Kodak's Rieger put it, wireless capability “will delay the commoditization process.”

But connected frames have to hit consumer-friendly price points. Kodak's Wi-Fi-enabled frames today cost $229 and $279, respectively, for 8-inch and 10-inch units. “The price has to come down,” said Rieger. “In 2009, those connected frames will go under $200. We are even seeing some activities that [could get] Wi-Fi frames to go under $100.”

Indeed, Marvell is betting its processor will enable a $99 price tag for connected digital photo frames. “If the digital photo frame costs as much as netbooks, consumers will say, 'I can do without it,' ” Manghnani said.

To maintain the digital photo frame's identity as a consumer device, the frame must look the same “whether it is connected or not,” said RMI's Miller. Moreover, “This should never be sold as an 'Internet-connected device.' ”

Companies are exploring various options. One is a vertically oriented, dedicated device, such as an eBay-specific digital photo frame, or an ESPN-sponsored frame that would update scores or show a specified video feed when not displaying the family photos.

Pandigital launched a 15-inch LCD frame in the fall that combines an HDTV, a digital cookbook featuring Bon Appetit magazine's digital recipe collection, and Internet access (for RSS feeds), designed for a kitchen counter.

The idea is to make digital photo frames a conduit that allows content owners or service providers to claim a piece of real estate in the home.

But designers, as always, must be wary of feature creep. “This needs to be a great digital photo frame, first and foremost,” said RMI's Miller. A great photo frame, he said, “needs to reproduce gamma-corrected pictures; be capable of 30-frame/second video; [run] slide shows; and hide the complexity of the connection to cameras, memory cards and PCs.”

Building on those basics, Miller envisions frames that stream Internet radio. Video should also join the party. Ultimately, social networking sites could drive connected digital photo frames.

The key, Marvell's Manghnani cautioned, is “introducing applications–different Internet services and widgets–gradually. Otherwise, consumers will get lost.”

RMI and Marvell both stress that ODMs, OEMs and carriers must start with a high-performance platform offering processing power of 800 MHz or better. Deficient processing power will result in too slow a response time for some applications and will yield a ragged user interface, said Manghnani.

Simplicity of the user interface is also a priority. Miller singled out “Web APIs and applications for embedded products” as one key issue. He said, “That means the user experience needs to be much closer to that of Android G-Phones and iPhones than Windows and Flash.”

The platform needs to offer “broadly supported, open communications standards for voice, video and IM,” he added.

And “it has to start at the right price, from day one,” Manghnani said.

If not for the recession, Kodak's Rieger believes, Wi-Fi digital photo frames would be the hottest consumer item of 2009.

At press time, Parks Associates was still tweaking its forecast. “I am going to lower the five-year compound annual growth rate from my previous forecast of the lower 30s to the lower 20s, given the economy's impact,” Wang said.

See also: What do early adopters want?

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