The Fourth Screen: Frame Media Turns Digital Picture Frames into Information Portals

9/11/07Follow @wroush

When content producers want to brag about their multimedia strategies, they often say they’re getting their material out to “all three screens,” meaning TV networks, Internet video sites, and Internet-enabled mobile phones. But while it might not be on your radar screen yet, there’s an emerging “fourth screen” showing up in some homes and offices: the digital picture frame. And as more and more of these frames come with wireless Internet connectivity, one local company, suitably enough called Frame Media, is working to become the central provider of mass-media and customized content for any brand of digital frame.

A self-funded, five-employee startup founded in 2006, the Wellesley, MA, company is basing its hopes partly on projections like those from research firm Market Intelligence Now, which estimates that some 6 million digital frames will be purchased in the United States this year, growing to 8 million in 2008. WiFi chips that connect the frames to computers in owners’ homes or offices will soon be a standard feature of the devices, analysts say.

“We’re seeing the frame market take off from the hardware standpoint, but no one is addressing the software and content,” says Frame Media co-founder and CEO Alan Philips, a former executive of uLocate and ZDnet/CNET Networks. I can confirm that personally, having witnessed a room full of me-too digital frame products at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. While all of the latest frames had better resolution, more memory, and greater connectivity than past models, there was little in terms of unique interfaces, capabilities, or content partnerships to set one apart from the next.

Frame Media co-founders Alan Phillips (left) and Jon FinegoldThat’s actually an advantage for Frame Media, which is building on the fact that digital frames are becoming a standardized commodity similar to PCs. The company’s service lets frame owners create customized slides shows by choosing from a lineup of channels such as business headlines, local weather updates, and “Photo of the Day” features from NASA, the Associated Press, and National Geographic, as well as personal photos they upload. It’s currently working with four frame manufacturers to include its software in custom chipsets built into the frames, so that buyers will be able to select content from inside the devices’ own interfaces; those who purchased sets earlier or without the built-in software can set their frames to download the slide shows from the company’s website.

Frame manufacturers, which range from familiar consumer-electronics names like Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Kodak, and Philips to lesser-known companies such as Ceiva, Pandigital, Momento, Mediastreet, and e-starling, are each trying to put their own spin on the digital-frame idea. Kodak’s frame, for example, can download photos directly from a digital camera, while Ceiva—the pioneering company in this niche—comes with a subscription service that family members and friends can use to update each others’ frames with new photos. But among the WiFi-equipped frames, one common feature is the ability to subscribe to Internet RSS feeds. RSS, for Really Simple Syndication, is the format commonly used by news aggregator services such as Newsgator, Netvibes, or Google Reader to let people subscribe to content from frequently updated sites such as blogs. But RSS can be used to deliver any kind of file, including photographs, and that’s the avenue Frame Media is exploiting. Once users select their channels and specify rules for their operations—for example, that each slide should appear for 10 seconds, or that business headlines and traffic updates should appear only on weekdays—the channels are gathered into a feed that can be reached through an individualized RSS address.

Frame Media was one of three “main dish” presenters at the heavily attended Web Innovators Group meeting last night in Cambridge. Audience questions focused on the company’s business model, which is to mix advertising into the content delivered through the frame. (Pages such as weather updates will include banner ads, and every 20th slide will be a full-page ad). One listener expressed doubt that consumers would really want one more form of advertising streaming into their homes. Frame Media co-founder Jon Finegold—former business development leader for uLocate and creator of triathlete and marathoner site Ontri.com—pointed out, accurately enough, that the idea of delivering ads into homes via PCs also seemed strange at one time. While Frame Media will sell premium, ad-free subscriptions to the service, Finegold said that he expects most customers will accept the ads.

It’s hard to say whether Frame Media will become the killer app for wireless picture frames. The company is the first in its market and therefore difficult to evaluate. Companies with comparable products in other media have met with mixed success. PointCast, a briefly famous “push media” firm that delivered customized news content in the form of PC screen savers, went belly-up in 2000. Captivate Network, on the other hand, built a network of LCD screens in office-tower elevators that deliver news and advertising to more than 2 million people every day; it did well enough to be acquired in 2004 by Gannett.

Having owned an early Ceiva frame myself, I understand how quickly a slide show consisting only of one’s own photos can grow repetitive and boring. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see a large fraction of future frame owners sign up for a free service that mixes in fresh content every day—as long as that service is easy to find and use. Phillips says making that happen is the company’s priority right now. And he says he’s keeping the company’s burn rate low so that it can survive into the 2008, 2009, and 2010 holiday gift seasons, when—if the analysts are right—that fourth screen will turn up under millions of Christmas trees.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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  • Bob F.

    The title “Information Portals” makes me think of the great “portal” mania including ATT’s 6 billion dollar “investment” in Excite@Home. No surprise that telecom companies see the world in terms of delivering services to a captive audience. The “digital picture frame” marketplace is moribund for good reason – there is no “there” there. And the home is not an elevator with a captive audience seeking respite from watching the floor number go from 1 to 2 to 3 to …

    But why do we think of these display surfaces as picture frames? Why not learn from the PC and give users control. Years ago the browser-only devices failed but now that we are beginning to assume connectivity perhaps a version of the idea can be revived. Not as a replacement for the PC but as a way to expand our capabilities and give users more opportunity and more choice.

  • Tomg

    I just purchased a frame at Sams Club that “shares photos wirelessly over the internet” (IDS1500). It does this with a WiFi dongle (included) to your Access Point (WEP or WPA) and gives you the choice of using Yahoo or Google photo services (I couldn’t get the Yahoo service to work, but the Google works just fine). The photos don’t get saved on the frame, they are accessed in real time. The software on the frame is accessed through a bunch of menus…no way to update the SW I can see…it works now, but what happens when Yahoo/Google change and the frame can’t communicate anymore? I can see why Ceiva works as well as it does. In any case, the frame has card slots that work just fine. An interesting concept for a 15″, $300 screen.

  • JayF

    In today’s world of multi-tasking, this would be another outlet to be informed. Working in a NY city skyscraper with the Captivate network in each car, I become bored and miss the stimulation when the device may not be working. I can see having a frame sitting on my desk that I will occasionally glance over at. Also, a stream of not only my own photographs, but those of top photographers would be a nice window on the world as I go through my every day paces. Pointcast wasn’t a bad idea except it ate up your disk space and was a bandwidth hog in the days of tiny bandwidth. This seems to me to be a portal of images to supplement your regular PC.