Frame Media Reinvents Itself as Thinking Screen, Goes After Larger “Connected Screen” Market

Wireless digital photo frames, considered one of the hot new categories in consumer electronics back in 2006 and 2007, haven’t taken off as quickly as expected. People love digital frames, but they’ve tended to buy them as gifts pre-loaded with photos they uploaded to the Web, meaning many frames still don’t come with their own connection to the Internet. That’s a problem for Wellesley, MA-based Frame Media, whose whole business, when I last profiled the startup in 2007, revolved around providing fresh digital content for the frames, such as news and sports headlines, weather, and photos shared by friends.

But while Wi-Fi-equipped frames are still playing catchup, another channel for the company’s programming is emerging: so-called “connected screens,” meaning a whole variety of Internet-ready displays that are turning up in homes and offices. As a result, Frame Media is rechristening itself Thinking Screen Media, and going after what CEO Alan Phillips calls “a whole category [of displays] defined primarily by the fact that, unlike PCs, they are limited in their ability to easily search and configure content.” That includes not just digital frames but high-definition TVs, cable set-top boxes, game consoles, Internet radios, and even printers.

Through its FrameChannel platform, Thinking Screen works with publishers such as Time magazine, the New York Times, People magazine, and Weatherbug to offer more than 1,000 channels of content customized for such screens. (Users choose and configure the information feeds at Thinking Screen’s website.) The company is also partnering with virtually every consumer-electronics company on the block—names like Kodak, Motorola, Nintendo, Philips, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba—to make it easy for device owners to activate the feeds on specific devices.

A digital photo frame“Most of the connected screens haven’t hit the market yet, but they will over the next six months,” says Phillips. In particular, Phillips says, “We’ll see an aggressive push by TV manufacturers to enable TVs to go beyond video.” A taste of what he’s talking about already familiar to millions of video game fans is the home screen of the Nintendo Wii, which, in addition to games, offers links to news, weather, shopping, and photos.

The 15-employee startup collected $5 million in Series A funding from Longworth Venture Partners and CommonAngels in May 2008, and there are plans to raise a Series B round this fall, Phillips says. When it comes to supplying content for tomorrow’s connected screens, Thinking Screen has both technical and strategic advantages over existing and potential competitors, he says.

San Diego-based Chumby, whose interactive media player displays information through “widgets” analogous to Thinking Screen’s channels, is the company’s closest competitor, in Phillips’ judgment. But he thinks Chumby will have a hard time delivering content to devices other than its trademark soft-sided appliance, since the widgets depend on Adobe’s Flash video format, which most other connected screens can’t handle. Thinking Screen’s data, by contrast, is delivered using the Media RSS format, created by Yahoo in 2004 and used by thousands of content publishers.

Thinking Screen also has a network of content and manufacturing partners that would be hard for any other company to match, Phillips says. “The barrier to entry is about partnerships on the content side and more importantly on the screen manufacturer side,” he says. “As we create a critical mass of users, the revenue from advertising is shared with both content providers and screen manufacturers, so there is a stream now that encourages the screen partners to make sure that FrameChannel is enabled on their devices.”

Two new products set to emerge from Thinking Screens in the coming months are designed to widen the service’s appeal to consumers. One is a line of inexpensive digital frames dedicated to a single type of content—examples might include a frame that just shows celebrity news from People magazine or news and scores for the Boston Red Sox.

The other is a selection of 35,000 channels aggregating local information. For example, Phillips says, “You could have a Hopkinton, Massachusetts channel, where we’ve licensed content from local news sources, traffic, weather, relevant sports scores, stock quotes for companies, lottery numbers, a Twitter feed from your state representative—everything to do with Hopkinton. So you can imagine watching the Today show at seven in the morning and as a picture-in-picture experience you’re also getting your local town’s feed.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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