Wanted: A flashy multimedia OS for my digital photo frame

I must admit, I got the digital photo frame market all wrong. I thought digital frames were simply glorified JPEG viewers, but after buying one for my wife, I've come to realize that the companies building these devices have far greater ambitions.

Already, many digital photo frames serve as multimedia centers that play music and video from a variety of storage media. Some even access photos over the Internet. They don't necessarily do a great job of performing these functions — yet. But clearly, they have the potential to become a major access point for a variety of online services and content.

For instance, many wireless operators see 3G-enabled digital frames as a tool for breaking into the home market — a market that, until now, has eluded them.

The digital frame I bought my wife does a fantastic job of displaying JPEGs. The images are clean and sharp, with good color balance. But now that I’ve used the frame for a while, I’m beginning to wish that it had a more robust operating system and application stack. For instance, I would like really like:

  • Wi-Fi support — Some frames support this, and I can see why. It lets you view your latest photos without having to use the Sneakernet

  • A Flickr widget — Lots of people store and share their photos on social media sites like Flickr. A Flickr widget would let me view my online photos, as well as any photos that friends and colleagues have posted. 

  • A YouTube widget — Because what good is a digital frame if it doesn’t let you watch silly animal clips

  • Custom slideshows — Lots of photo programs, including PhotoShop Elements, let you tag photos with arbitrary terms like "birthday" or "vacation" or "trip to Italy". A digital frame that supports tags would let me create custom slideshows on the fly. 

  • Custom MP3 playlists — My wife's digital frame lets me play songs stored in a specific folder, but it doesn’t let me generate playlists on the fly. For instance, if I'm watching a slideshow on my wedding, I might want to select a romantic song and ask the digital frame to "play more music like this." 

  • Integration with iPods and other music players — My wife's digital frame can play MP3 files stored on USB sticks and other flash media, but it doesn't seem to work with iPods and other similar devices. How many people store their music collection on a USB stick? 

  • Better screen fonts — My wife's digital frame doesn't truncate long file names (thank goodness), but in many cases, you can't still can't see the full file name of an image because the text font is too large and too wide. 

  • Adobe Flash user interface — The graphical menus on my wife's digital frame are okay, but they'd look a lot slicker implemented in Flash. Also, by supporting Flash, the frame could play Flash movies downloaded from the Internet. 

The interesting thing is, companies making infotainment systems for cars are already using QNX middleware to achieve many of these goals. So what’s to stop digital frame manufacturers from also using QNX? Not much, I think.


VectorMeson said...

Per frame royalty costs when Linux is free and memory cheap except for a geeks salary?

Anonymous said...

I have a GPS with embedded Linux. It works well – but boots slowly. QNX has the advantage.

Paul N. Leroux said...

VectorMason brings up a good point: Linux doesn't have royalties, which is an important factor to consider in a low-cost, high-volume device. But while I am the furthest thing from an expert on Linux, I can't agree that Linux is free. As VectorMeson implies, some companies maintain their own Linux kernel, which costs money; others get their Linux distribution from an embedded Linux vendor, who charge for support and custom engineering. Also, if you're going to put Linux in a high-volume commercial device, you had better do some legal due diligence and ascertain the provenance of the code you are using. That also costs money. None of this automatically means that you should choose a royalty-based solution over Linux, but it does mean you have to look at your total costs.

I think one QNX advantage rests in the fact that, in the automotive market at least, QNX has done most of the heavy lifting. Metadata synching, integration with iPods and Zunes, etc., it's all there. Which means that automotive suppliers save a huge amount of time and effort. If a lot of that goodness can be reused in something like a digital photo frame, then QNX offers an interesting alternative, from a cost and time-to-market point of view. Also, an OS vendor who charges royalties is very interested in getting its customer to market as fast as possible.