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A platform for media

test 4 January 2010

When choosing digital signage, there are three main types of hardware/software package. However, scalability, flexibility and content can be just as important to get right, as Ian McMurray explains.

As Peter Critchley, managing director of The Beaver Group, says: "On the face of it, all digital signage software is the same. It all delivers content to screens."

"But," he continues, "to say that it's all the same is like saying all cars are the same, on the basis that they all get you from A to B."

If anything, the digital signage market has become more confusing for the outsider, if only because of the apparently unending array of offerings. "All the hype about digital signage means that there are hundreds of companies trying to jump on the bandwagon," says David Oades, managing director of Sedao. Ken Goldberg, CEO for Real Digital Media (RDM), agrees. "There's certainly been some commoditisation of digital signage software at the low end," he says, "and that's a function of the tremendous number of new entries rushed to the field."

Prospective customers are faced with a bewildering array of choice – but before they delve into the detail of the functionality they require, there is a more fundamental decision to be made. Digital signage comes in three basic forms. There are solutions in which hardware and software are tightly tied in an integrated solution. An alternative is platform-independent digital signage software, a solution in which hardware and software are acquired separately. A third way forward is Software as a Service, or SaaS.

While the first two are perhaps self-explanatory, the third is less so. SaaS has been around for a decade or so, and, typically, leverages web technologies in such a way that the user doesn't have to acquire a software licence: rather, he acquires a service – in effect, outsourcing the application.

Know your options

So how does a customer choose between the three – what are the pros and cons of each?

Digital signage software should be platform independent," according to Andy Howard, senior director of product marketing at VBrick. "In today's world, there really is no reason to create digital signage software that only runs on a specific hardware platform. It's about giving the customer more choice."

And while Oades is broadly a supporter of platform independence, his support is not without reservations. "If you need a system to run 24/7," he says, "then letting a customer put it on any old PC means that you're going to get the phone calls if that PC is badly built."

Martijn Bakker, digital signage solutions specialist at Sony, believes a single-source supplier can be advantageous. "Because we manufacture the software and the hardware, we can ensure optimum integration of the two," he says. "Yes, our software will work with other displays, but the options are then restricted, and the total solution less than optimal."

"It makes sense if you think about it," says Matt Anderson of Daktronics. "Independent software carries a certain set of generic features to be used across different hardware platforms, whereas a combined solution features software that is designed to work seamlessly with the hardware, allowing it to offer deeper functionality."

Gaining independence

Another manufacturer primarily associated with hardware is NEC. "Independent platforms have the advantage that they are agnostic, giving customers a broader choice," says Neale Williams, business development manager, digital media and cinema products at the company. He goes on to point out that NEC makes a simple digital signage software solution available for free download, as well as offering a more sophisticated solution.

Maria Porco, vice president for business development at X2O Media, takes his point. "It's true that companies that have tied software to hardware have optimised the package to deliver the best results," she says. "And, of course, you have the advantage of a single point of contact. On the other hand, not only does platform independence give customers more choice, but it can also save money for corporate environments that have negotiated volume purchasing agreements with hardware suppliers. It also makes it easier to change the underlying hardware – which could be an important consideration if a digital signage hardware platform vendor's solution falls behind in technology terms. We believe customers benefit most from using an open platform."

That may be true. On the other hand… "By supporting a single stream of media players with a unified operating system, management of players in the field, troubleshooting bugs and applying enhancements all become a more manageable task," notes Goldberg, whose company is a market leader in SaaS for digital signage. "Here at RDM, we generally deploy our software on our NEOCAST Media Player platforms. But we've had many requests from customers with existing media players – usually PCs – to use their existing hardware as they switch to our NEOCAST software solution. We evaluate those opportunities on a case-by-case basis: if there's sufficient volume involved, it's something we can do."

"At the end of the day, it's not about platform independence, it's about product attributes such as functionality, robustness and scalability," says Ian McKenzie, CEO of Dynamax. "But something that's often overlooked is the ability to integrate with other manufacturers' software in the digital signage food chain."
The arguments for and against platform independence are equally compelling, it seems, with advantages for both. But why might SaaS be attractive – or not? The key issues are cost and control, it seems.

"If you want to maintain a high degree of control, if you have an existing infrastructure that you want to leverage, if you have the resources available to manage the system and if you have the budget, the decision is probably going to be the acquisition of on-premise licensing," says Howard. "But if control isn't so important to you, if you don't have the ability to manage the system and if low cost of entry is important to you, that would point to SaaS."

Scaling up

For Oades, it's simply about scale. "If it's a small, local installation, then licensing is appropriate," he says. "But for thousands of screens, SaaS is the way to go."

"The arguments for perpetual licence versus SaaS are well rehearsed," says McKenzie. "A lot depends, for example, on in-house IT policy, such as attitudes to company data lying outside the company firewall. Then, there's the IT competency of the end-user – a one-man-band may not want or have the IT/security competencies to run an in-house system. An SaaS approach may work well if you are not yet convinced digital signage is the route you wish to follow. A perpetual licence costs appreciably more up front but may be a cheaper option over the life of the project. There are other options, such as a perpetual licence, on-premise, where the end user pays monthly rental rather than upfront."

"SaaS can give you a relatively low cost of entry and minimal monthly costs," says Critchley, "and allow customers to take up a system which may have all the benefits of a platform-independent system, but without the upfront capital investment. We use a variety of platform-independent enterprise and SaaS models – as well as some blurred lines in between. It really depends on what the customer requires."

"The safest bet in choosing between platform-independent and SaaS is to find a vendor that offers both and can switch you between one and the other – like Scala, for example," smiles Gerard Bucas, Scala's CEO.

Future proofing

According to many in the industry, though, the question is less about choosing between hardware/software combined platforms, platform-independent software and SaaS, and more about the scalability, flexibility, functionality and content that come with that choice. Oades makes the entirely valid point that neither scalability nor flexibility are relevant to a primary school, which just needs to display photos and texts on a few screens, but for many businesses they are, apparently, vital considerations.

"The key isuue for an end user is not what he wants to achieve now – it's what he wants to achieve in the next few years," says Critchley. "Sometimes, what is the best choice now is not always the best choice for three years' time. When it comes to an investment in digital signage, it is best to have clear goals on what it is supposed to achieve over the next few years. With that in mind, choosing a system can become easier, as the drawbacks and advantages are put into a real-world perspective."

Bucas agrees. "It's relatively easy to do a pilot of a digital signage network and interconnect a few locations," he says. "The question is how scalable is the solution? What you want originally may change in subsequent phases, but can you be sure you will never need interactive screens, or integration with third-party systems? Those are just some of the really important questions to answer."

For Porco, an equally important area concerns content. "It can't be stressed enough," she says. "Figure out the content first. Digital signage is really all about the content and the related workflow processes – what types of assets will you display? Who's your audience? What are the objectives? Will you run ads? Who will generate content?"

Oades agrees. "There needs to be much more emphasis on content creation rather than simply content play-out," he says. "We are one of the few that started out with content and then worried about how to play it. Others are finally catching up, and we've been approached by a number of competitors to OEM our QuickChange content program."

Despite the superficial appearance that all digital signage solutions are much the same, the reality is – unsurprisingly – very different. Porco sounds a note of caution: "What we see are a lot of companies saying the same thing, but actually delivering completely different things. Take media players, for example. The way our Xpresenter Player works means it can deliver savings on the content production side of things as well as saving on transportation and distribution costs. It would be difficult for an average customer to know the difference between our Xpresenter Player and a simple media playback device without a complete understanding of how the two differ. Similarly, everyone offers templates – but there are worlds of difference between what they mean, and what they deliver in terms of benefit."

Critchley warms to the theme. "There are many technical differences, and they're not always apparent without an in-depth evaluation," he says. "Any system can create, manage and distribute assets – but if it takes two hours on one and two minutes on another, then that is a significant difference, especially if you have a very large network."

Bucas returns to Critchley's automotive analogy. "It's like deciding whether you need your own car or can you get by with public transport?" he says. The answer to that may help the decision as to whether a company should self-host or go the SaaS route – but perhaps more important is for a business to ascertain exactly what it needs, and to analyse in detail as many cars, buses, trains and planes as possible with those needs in mind before coming to that decision.

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