People looking at launching a digital signage network have an abundance of options to choose from. When looking at software solutions, two main choices come to mind. There are proprietary, and open source solutions. To pick the best candidate you must consider your business needs, risk tolerance and financial situation.
There is one thing everyone can agree on… Open source does not necessarily mean “free” software. There may not be any fees for acquiring and using the software, but at some point, you will hit a wall and you’ll need help. You may need to purchase some add-on services, or bring someone in with specific expertise to complete your project.
If you look long enough, you will find free proprietary software solutions. Unfortunately, these products are often crippled or seriously restricted, making them all but useless for anything but very basic projects. They only exist to attract customers to a paid, and fully supported version.
The problems with community based support
Many open source digital signage products can be traced back to a college or university projects. After all, you have a large pool of talent who has the time and resources required to build and test software.
The educational sector is a great test-bed for these types of solutions, since they have needs only digital signage software can fulfill. By creating their digital signage software in-house and releasing the product to the open source community, colleges and universities benefit from a very large base of users and developers. After all, this is what open source is all about.
It’s important to note the strength of any open source project lies in its user community. The more active and engaged the community, the better developed and refined the software. When you have a healthy open source project, users receive frequent software patches and bug fixes so they end up with a more reliable product. They can also contribute to the product’s development, which can be useful.
However, products that aren’t developed with an active user community tend to stagnate and fall behind. Bugs aren’t fixed as quickly, if at all. New operating system versions and hardware components are no longer supported. Soon, the few remaining users find the software is no longer reliable, or even desirable. At some point, whoever is left realizes they’re on their own. If something goes wrong, there’s no one there to help.
It’s not a huge problem when you’re dealing with a school or college project, but it’s an entirely different story if you’re running a business or a corporation. All you need is a reliable digital signage solution, and a good support infrastructure.
Most proprietary software companies offer advanced end-user assistance with dedicated technical support resources, regular software updates, and end-user training (live, online and on-demand). Proprietary software publishers also offer user forums and support their communities to engage customers, and deliver better support.
Looking under the hood
Not surprisingly, open source digital signage solutions are mostly based on web technologies. In fact, these products are rarely, if ever, written in native programming languages.
Here’s why. Native software development requires a lot of time and resources. It’s much more involved than developing interpreted software based on web technologies.
Most open source software publishers lack the necessary resources to develop in native programming languages. They don’t always have access to a dedicated team of engineers, so they leverage web technologies to fast-track the development process. It may be quicker and cheaper than the alternative, but the resulting products can’t compete head-to-head with native software.
Native software is more reliable and efficient because it’s code addresses the playback device’s processor and other hardware components directly. It’s why native software has less tendency to exhibit memory leaks, and is generally more stable. This also explains why most native software is proprietary. No one wants to spend money on products that will be given away or shared and developed publicly.
It makes sense that companies who invest massive amounts of capital in research and development deliver products that are more innovative, and offer more features.
Other proprietary software advantages
- Proprietary software tends to be better documented and has a larger active user base.
- People who invest in proprietary software tend to be more loyal to the product.
- Proprietary software companies offer a higher level of end-user support and assistance.
- Proprietary software development is highly competitive. This fosters innovation and lowers software costs.
- Proprietary digital signage software solutions tend to be easier to install, maintain and use. Most of these products don’t require any special expertise.
- Rarely will proprietary software developers release “beta” or untested software to their customers.
Open source and the cloud
Access to open source software on a cloud, or “software as a service” solutions usually requires some form of paid subscription. These are fees that help cover maintenance and technical support.
Here again, reliability varies depending on the open source community’s engagement. The healthier and more active the community, the more reliable and up to date the cloud solution should be.
I say should, because there is more to it than just the software. You need to consider the back-end server and supporting services. It’s important to choose a cloud provider who has sufficient resources to handle ongoing maintenance and backups. Cloud servers require regular updates and upgrades as more users come on board. Adequate bandwidth matters, too. Therefore, you should pick a cloud provider who has a proven track record. Otherwise you may find yourself looking at a bunch of blank screens and no one to respond.
Many cloud based open source solutions are operated by companies who offer these services as a side-business. They are often web hosting providers or other similar businesses with the network infrastructure already in place. Hosting a digital signage cloud is easy for them, but it might not be their core expertise.
What are open source digital signage solutions good for?
Assuming you are considering a well-supported product, open source digital signage software can be used for a range of applications. Before picking a solution, make sure you trust the product’s source, and consider what will happen when you need to deal with technical issues.
Here are a few questions that can help you determine your tolerance level.
- Is reliability at the top of your list?
- Do you require 24/7, year-round operation?
- Are you technically savvy, or do you have access to resources that can help you resolve issues?
- Are you familiar with Linux, MySQL and other open source software?
- Is your business financially dependent on your digital signage displays?
- You’ve installed digital menu boards in your restaurant. What happens if your displays go dark when you have customers to serve? What kind of impact will this have on your bottom line?
- Your company is customer focused and recently installed digital signage displays in a showroom or retail location. How will your customers be impacted if your displays stop working? Will sales drop? How will this affect your brand?
- You use digital signage in your hotel lobby and the content management system starts misbehaving. Players crash or content fails to update. You use these displays to inform guests of hotel events, local destinations, weather forecasts and airline departure times. How will guests react? How will your staff react?
These are just a few examples of what can happen when a problem causes your digital signage solution to fail. People who invest in displays, media player hardware and software expect a certain level of reliability and support. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother going through this process.
Remember it’s not all about the cost of the software. There are installation costs, software training and many other components that are part of every deployment. It doesn’t matter if you’re installing a single screen or a hundred. Nobody wants to deal with problems.
It’s worth taking the time to weigh all your options before choosing a digital signage platform for your business.