In recent years digital photo frames have been increasingly identified as the fourth screen of the modern home.  The evolution of this title was largely propelled by vendors and content providers, who supported the theory with forecasts of new applications and rapidly improving capabilities.  By many accounts, digital frames were well on their way to outgrowing their role as a simple photo display and would eventually serve as a go-to source for content, communication, and entertainment.

As we continue through the category’s third year as a relevant mainstream product, digital frames have truly emerged as the fourth most common screened device in US households.  The rapid influx of digital images has led to a transformation in how people store, share, and display photographs – creating considerable demand for digital frames as well as an array of online photo applications.  Armed with the growing demand and increasingly reasonable pricing, sales of digital frames skyrocketed and estimated US household penetration rates reached an impressive 22 percent.  Although televisions, computers, and mobile phones maintain an undeniable command as the top three screens, digital frames have successfully established a competition-free presence as the home’s fourth most common screen.  Mission accomplished!!!  Right???  Sort of…


The idea of digital photo frames as the household’s fourth screen has always involved usage and reliance that went far beyond showing photos that were transferred from a memory card.  And although digital frames are expected to continue their dominance as the fourth screen in terms of presence, most of the category’s previously-forecasted uses remain unrealized.  Despite ongoing advances in digital frame technology, consumer acceptance of the wireless functionality that is required to perform most fourth screen-oriented applications has remained low and the actual implementation of these functions is even lower.

When I first covered the prospect of digital photo frames as the fourth screen in 2007, it was easy to be optimistic regarding the evolution of the product, its technologies, and most-importantly its users.  Wireless models already enjoyed a 7.7 percent share of all digital frames in retail, surpassing many more-established peripherals including digital cameras and printers.  Processor manufacturers were rapidly raising the category’s wireless and multimedia functionality ceilings and widely quoted forecasts claimed that wireless frame shipments would surpass 12 million units worldwide by 2010.  Less than two years later, manufacturers continue to make impressive technology improvements, but the retail share of wireless digital frames has dropped to just 3.18 percent, and boastful forecasts of the wireless frame revolution has given way to whispers of existing inventory levels.

While existing inventory concerns can be attributed to the new economy and overly-ambitious forecasts, the digital frame consumers’ slow embrace of wireless functionality and more-complex applications are not as easily explained.  Beyond simple “chicken and egg” reasoning, digital frame manufacturers need to ask themselves some very serious questions regarding the direction of the category and the fourth screen movement.

What do consumers need that is not already offered in the first three screens?

Not only do the first three screens have entertainment, connectivity, and communication mastered, their role in consumers’ everyday lives is incomparable.  Televisions are everyone’s go-to entertainment and news source and completely ubiquitous.  Not only do computers dominate communication and content distribution in the home and workplace, they are the fastest growing utility for entertainment and still hold and display far more photographs than digital frames.  Mobile phones combine many of the qualities of televisions and computers, but provide added convenience through portability and will likely succeed computers as the fastest growing entertainment and content delivery medium.

How actively do users want to be with this historically passive product type?

Framed pictures have adorned walls and desktops for hundreds of years, achieving penetration rates that would make the top three screens sheepish.  Throughout their extremely successful existence, standard picture frames required almost no user activity and commanded very little attention once mounted.  To a degree, this has translated to a very small number of power users within the digital frame market, as encouraging consumers to embrace even standard levels of functionality has proved to be an obstacle.  Remote controls are collecting dust, memory cards go unchanged, and an alarming number of gift recipients never actually put their frames to use.  With this in mind, the prospect of mainstream consumers relying on digital frames to communicate with friends, receive news, and enjoy entertainment-based content is difficult to imagine – especially given how well the first three screens have these covered.

Is this a decorative product, a photo accessory, or a multifunctional device?

Digital photo frames fall into all thee categories.  However, with a few exceptions, current usage is still centered around displaying photos and providing decoration.  As previously noted, framed pictures have been a household mainstay for hundreds of years, providing almost no functions beyond holding a picture and decorating a wall.  Categories do evolve, but given how frames are used, where they are placed, and what their traditional role is, full evolution beyond serving as a photo device will take time.


What other product categories have successfully made this transition? How?


The household’s very own third screen, the mobile phone, is a prime example of a product that evolved beyond its core functionality and has emerged as a true multifunctional device.  Capitalizing on a combination of portability, connectivity, and a massive user base, mobile phones have rapidly emerged as a main source for content, information, non-vocal communication, and entertainment.  However, mobile phones did not achieve these advances by beating televisions and computers at their own games.  Instead the evolution of handsets’ has been largely driven by the convenience provided by their portability, while offering “lite” versions of traditional computer and television features.

Where is this category’s sweet spot?

At gap intelligence we like to say that we are the “best in the world at providing timely and accurate industry vitals in actionable solutions.” With that in mind, we ask ourselves a two-part question before launching any new initiative or program:“How does this align with our strengths and can we also become the best in the world it?”

Digital photo frames are the best photo displaying device in the world and if gap were a frame vendor, you could bet that all of our fourth screen-oriented applications would either improve or enhance the photo viewing experience.  Sure providing news or allowing instant messaging through a frame will help raise some eyebrows, but a digital frame isn’t even the best application for these functions in the average living room – nevermind the world.

Like mobile phones, which expanded on their role as the best mobile communication device in the world, the emergence of digital frames as a mainstream connected product will only be achieved through building on the category’s strengths.

Despite the slowed-momentum of the fourth screen movement, the emergence of digital frames as a wireless category is inevitable.  The number of wireless households continues to grow, reliance on photo sharing and networks sites is increasingly dominant, and all major frame vendors either offer or are planning a wireless model.  With that in mind, perhaps the next two questions that frame vendors should ask themselves is if their fourth screen strategy aligns with the category’s strengths and how can they become the best in the world within this new arena.




Taken by Nicéphore Niépce’s in 1826, “View from the Window at Le Gras” is the earliest surviving photograph of a scene from nature.  Sure it’s famous, but it can’t give me traffic updates or the Snapple fact of the day.

The following is a list of my favorite fourth place finishers in no particular order:

* Butch Hobson’s 1994 Red Sox – Run by the toughest manager in MLB History

* Digital Photo Frames – Take that Netbooks!


* Paul Tsongas – Actually third place in primaries

* The Flint Tropics in Will Ferrell’s “Semi-Pro” –They targeted fourth place too!!!