Signage Software Evolving And Maturing

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The great thing about crowded fields, when it comes to business solutions, is how the smart buyers win.

There are scores of digital signage software solutions on the market globally, and hyper-competition has forced companies of all sizes and perspectives to steadily improve their offers. No one can afford to develop a version 1.0, and then stop and just sell that.

The result: steadily expanded capabilities, solutions that are easy to use, and lowered costs brought on by all that competition.

Some clear trends have emerged that show where digital signage platforms are at, and where they are going.

The Back-end: 

There will always be exceptions, but most companies using digital signage systems don’t want to fully manage the technology that drives these systems. Unless there are security and privacy issues that absolutely dictate the end-user’s IT department keeps it all in-house, companies are very happy these days to leave the management of servers, databases, storage, archiving and distribution in the hands of vendors.

It’s now common to read marketing materials from software companies that trumpet a cloud-based approach to their services. Cloud is an over-used and abused term, but properly applied it refers to companies that use third-party data centers with shared servers that spread the costs across many clients, and give services “elasticity” – the ability to raise and lower server and broadband distribution capacity by checking software boxes instead of physically adding more computing capability.

Cloud-based systems can handle special circumstances, like a network that needs to get a big set of files to players on short notice and quickly.

Using genuine cloud-based systems also adds redundancy – the assurance that if for whatever reason a data centre goes offline (maybe in a power cut) there are backup centres that take over without interruption to services.

User Experience

The heavy shift seen in the marketplace to web/cloud systems means it is increasingly rare to see end-user software that is an actual software “client” application that has to be installed on desktop PCs or laptops. The norm these days is a browser-based user experience that gives operators a full range to tools, but centralizes the computing power and processes to make them work.

Some specialized software offers that chase certain verticals, like advertising or data-intensive messaging, have by necessity developed systems that are are deep and complicated. But it’s more common these days to see platforms that are user-friendly and easily managed with only some quick training. Most networks don’t need all the intricate features built into complex platforms.

They tend to want What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interfaces that behave like other familiar tools they use on computers day to day. They want to be able to freely design layouts and insert elements – like text, images and videos – as they wish, and then schedule them with no more complexity than they need to book a hotel online.

End-users are also looking for systems that are open and ready to work with external systems, and use and react to external data. Those platforms that are “walled gardens” – closed platforms that custom development to integrate with other services – are going to increasingly be specialty services, with limited customer bases.

Management

Reliable, industrial-grade media players in the field, combined with robust device management software tools, are becoming the norm.

There is more than enough hard-won experience in the marketplace now to stop network operators from shaving costs by going with consumer-grade PCs. Almost all the black or blue screens we all see in the field owe to corner-cutting – using PCs that are fine for an office but not for the higher and harsher demands of digital signage.

Experienced operators know the small premium they pay for media playback devices designed for and tuned to the tasks is easily worth it, given the field repair and replacement bills they’ll never see.

As important, though, is software that can work with these devices. Just about any digital signage platform can monitor whether a PC is operating, but the best platforms available can fully watch and remotely manage what’s going on – auto-correcting issues as they start to develop and  sending notifications.

Many networks have been crippled or wound down because the hardware and software was not up to the challenge.

The Future

The major trends are going to be about shifting operating systems, expanded hardware platforms, increased scalability, cross-platform integration and cost.

Windows is not going away, but Linux is now a mature, well-supported and respected platform that offers reliability and the absence of a software license fee. Google’s Android operating system is still young and hyper-fragmented, but offers a lot of benefits. Already, there are numerous companies marketing Android-driven digital signage player solutions.

The x86 personal computer platform that has been the basis of just about everything done with software is now being augmented by computing devices built for TV set-top boxes and smartphones. Low-cost processors are quite capable of running HD video and certainly of playing still images, and many digital signage software companies have sub-$100 devices on their benches, testing the possibilities. They present operating risks and compromises right now, but like most things in technology, they’ll get faster and better.

The use of cloud services and databases will mean managing networks in the thousands of nodes will be as easy as running much smaller ones. Advantech designs a series of remote management application programs for system integrator SIs. It allow SIs to monitor and control remote embedded devices in real-time. The services is also designed with cloud-based. It provides on-demand software services so SIs can download & upgrade applications when they need.

Finally, scaled services will allow software companies to build pricing models that provide them solid operating margins but reduce end-user costs. We’ll also see more flexibility in how companies work with end-users – allowing, for example, networks to buy the software as a service or as one-time “lifetime” licenses.

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