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Digital frames audition for home's 'third screen'

Posted: 12 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital photo frame? home third screen? wireless connection?

Connectivity problem
"The big problem carriers solve is connectivity," said 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, 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."

Bring down prices
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 Appetitmagazine'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."

Adding Internet radio
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 applicationsdifferent Internet services and widgetsgradually. 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 800MHz 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.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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