Tablets are great, but probably not as digital signage devices

The release of a new batch of tablet devices by online sales giant Amazon has raised, once again, excited discussions about using low-cost consumer devices as digital signage appliances.

The idea comes up almost entirely because of cost and form factor. First it was the Apple iPad. Then it was the Samsung tablet. Then the other Android operating system tablets that started popping up. Now it’s the $199 USD Amazon Kindle Fire.

Within an hour of the announcement, the first questions started popping up in social media, asking whether the Fire could do the digital signage job on the shelf-edges and countertops of the retail and public spaces world.

In the most basic terms, sure they can. A handful of digital signage software companies have stripped down versions of their technology that can get a scheduled set of stills and videos running on devices as elemental as WiFi-enabled digital photo frames.

But there are some big caveats that need to be considered before a retailer or network operator goes down the path of using devices, built with specific uses in mind, for something very different.

Tablets and e-readers are consumer devices designed to be lovingly cradled, caressed and stored away by their owners. They are not fragile pieces of crystal, by any means. The product engineers do drop tests and run the prototypes through lab testing that simulates the bad things that can happen between owners and their devices. But they are not designed, or quite possibly subject to valid warranties, that anticipate 12-14 hours or more per days of steady usage and abuse.

For every 10 people who gently push a tablet’s start button, there’s one who jabs it. For every 10 people who treat such devices gently, there’s one who will treat it as a punching bag. These devices will be poked and prodded, jammed and spilled upon, and cleaned with solutions and devices that would make the design team shudder.

The digital signage business has, for years, been trying to reinforce with customers the importance of using commercial-grade display panels that are engineered for the environmental conditions and  operating demands of retail and public spaces. Slowly, they’ve been moving people off of using televisions and getting them understanding that the initial premium of commercial monitors is well worth it when the screens don’t fail in the field and break/fix/replace costs pile up.

The same now applies with using tablets. The iPads and Fires and other tablets out there are fabulous devices, but they are consumer devices tuned to personal use and handling. They are not designed to survive days, weeks and months of unprotected pounding from the public in stores and restaurants.

Advantech makes what it calls infotainment  terminals that reflect the slim, portable and elegant look of tablets, but also incorporate our vast experience in industrial computing. We have products that meet the design aesthetics and size of tablets, but are built to be reliably used, 24/7, in demanding facilities like health care. Where consumer tablets have limited connectors and expansion capabilities, and pre-installed operating systems, purpose-designed terminals let our end-users add the peripheral devices they need and the operating systems that sync up with their businesses.

It’s a different, but likely far smarter approach. A retailer can keep initial capital costs down by going with consumer devices, and then put in the intangible extra time and costs to make them work and keep working. Or that retailer or other facility operator – like a fast-casual restaurant chain – can roll out with information and infotainment terminals that are ready to work from the start, and will keep on working.