The search for digital signage software
One quick Google search on the topic “top digital signage software” returns thousands of results. This is when you realize that digital signage is a mature, and very competitive market. When you start going down this rabbit hole, you will discover products that are nothing more than glorified school projects turned “open source” software. You will also find products that claim to be free but really, aren’t. And you will find a lot of commercial software with all kinds of bells and whistles. It’s really not for the faint of heart.
It’s a process that can be very daunting, so let’s take a few minutes to dig into what makes one product better than the others.
The truth behind every software
There is one “dirty little secret” that few digital signage software vendors will talk about. It’s the notion of interpreted vs native software. Do your research. Read the web sites, but you won’t find many references about this.
It’s what separates the modern/professional software from all the other products. By our estimate, most of the digital signage solutions currently on the market is based on interpreted software.
So let’s see what this means…
When we talk about interpreted software, we’re really talking about software that uses a programming language that is based essentially on web technologies. With interpreted languages, the software code is not directly executed by the target machine. Instead, it’s read and executed by another program. The second program (let’s call it the interpreter) is usually written in the language of the machine, meaning it’s a native program. In plain terms, the digital signage software needs to be interpreted by another program before the instructions are executed.
Software written using interpreted languages are more complex. They are less efficient because they rely on the interpreter to pass along the instructions to the machine’s processor.
So why do so many developers rely on this technique? In one word… it’s cheaper. Developing software using interpreted languages requires less effort, which translates into less upfront investment for the software company. It’s simple economics, but it isn’t in the customer’s best interest.
Interpreted software is more prone to crashes, and the underlying code can be more difficult to update over time. Also, it’s important to remember that web technologies are evolving at a very rapid pace. So the software you buy today could easily become obsolete tomorrow, because the code can’t be easily updated and adapted. In some cases the developer may decide it’s not worth keeping up with all the latest technologies and that’s when their software starts lagging in features and performance.
There are many interpreted languages, each one with it’s pros and cons but the end result is always the same. Added complexity, less efficiency, and lower reliability.
So this brings us to the next option…
Native software is written in a language that, once compiled, can be read directly by the machine. Instructions don’t go through an interpreter. This offers many benefits:
- Direct access to the machine’s underlying hardware components. Native software can directly address a PC’s processor or graphics processing unit (GPU). This makes for software that is quicker and uses up less PC resources. It means increased efficiency and better performance.
- Native software is more stable because the code isn’t relying on an extra conversion step to pass along its instructions. This can lead to less crashes and instability.
So, if developing software using native languages is so much better, why isn’t it the preferred method for digital signage software companies? Native software development requires more resources and longer development cycles. It simply costs more to develop software using native languages. It’s not in the developer’s interest to do so.
This is why there are far fewer digital signage software products that are based on native languages. It’s a fact that isn’t discussed much in the industry but it is a fact.
Why isn’t there more information about this? People don’t know. And frankly, many don’t care unless they are making a major investment in digital signage. Your typical burger joint displaying their menus on a couple of screens probably won’t care much about this. They are just looking for cheap or free software that will do the job. Fact is, they are probably using the display manufacturer’s bundled software anyways.
But those who are looking for a professional-grade digital signage software solution should care. They are the ones who should know about the technology behind their digital signage software. If you’re in the market for a software solution for your business, be sure to should ask your vendor how their products are developed. Are they using interpreted or native languages? You may be surprised by what you will find.
Local Software vs Web Based
Digital signage software solutions are made up of multiple modules. There can be two or more depending on the software’s design. The most basic software products use a local program to manage and schedule content that will be transferred to the player software installed on remote PCs and devices. In this type of solution, the controlling PC will either communicate through a local network or possibly use the internet. The content playback software connects randomly to retrieve its instructions and all the content required to run the program.
These types of products tend to be single user based, meaning they are not designed to be accessed by multiple users. There are workarounds for this. Some folks use a remote control application to provide access to multiple users, but this is really a stop-gap measure not really intended for production use.
The other approach is what we call “web-based”. This type of software is designed so multiple users can login and manage the content. It’s also referred to as CMS software, or content management system.
A web-based CMS has 3 main components.
- The back-end CMS server.
- The user dashboard (also called, UI).
- The media player software.
Here are some of the features you will find in the best digital signage software solutions.
- Multiple users can manage content, schedules and players simultaneously.
- The CMS server can usually be installed on a physical or virtual machine.
- The CMS server uses an efficient database engine (SQL, for example).
- The CMS dashboard is accessible via the LAN or web so users can be located anywhere.
- There is no local dashboard software to install or maintain.
- The CMS server software is scalable so additional resources can be added as the player network grows.
Playlists vs scripted programming
Start investigating digital signage software and you will soon encounter terms like “playlists” and “scripted programming”. Here is what they mean…
Playlist driven digital signage software
The playlist is a well known method of programming content for playback. Anyone who has used an iPod, MP3 player or smartphone has created musical playlists. It’s a simple list of content that will play in sequence or randomly over time as the playlist loops.
It’s essentially the same for many digital signage products. Content is added to one or more playlist that loops continuously or in a sequence of playlists. It’s pretty basic stuff and it does the job for many applications.
Some of the better digital signage software products let you go further. For example, you can merge playlists together or create global and local playlists. This results in a more “organic” type of playback so the audience sees less content repetitions.
Scripted programming and rule-based software
With scripted programming, there are no playlists. Instead, you must assign parameters to each media content that will determine where and when each content will play. The schedule is assigned to the media itself or you can use rules to determine when the content can be shown on screen. Like, play content X the first week of every month or only on Mondays between 8 and 9 AM.
Many of these software products also support meta-tag programming. Tags are assigned to content and to specific players. The content will only play on the players that have been assigned matching tags.
This approach is less visual but it can be extremely efficient when dealing with large and complex player networks. It’s a less manual approach that automates a lot of the steps required to program the content.
Hybrid digital signage software
Our top digital signage software solutions can support both types of content programming. We can call these “hybrid” solutions because they let you use playlists and assign rules to content. You can also in some cases tag players and content. When you combine all these features together, there is no challenge you can’t meet. No project you can’t tackle.