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Photo frames: The next big thing in wireless?

Posted: 12 Mar 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Digital photo frame  connected digital photo frame  connected home  wireless connectivity to 

Digital photo frame is emerging as a connected "third screen" at home, beyond cell phones and PCs, and the product's evolution has chip suppliers, consumer electronics companies and even wireless carriers seeing dollar signs.

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."

Digital photo frame market growth

(Click to view full image)

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 VoIP 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, VP 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."

"Centerpiece of the connected home"
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/2D/3D 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."

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

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

Typically expected in a new digital photo frame are a faster processor, in excess of 800MHz; 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 OS for faster response.

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."

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.

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