Android: digital signage for the masses

Caption: Android might offer a cheap route into digital signage - but is that its only advantage? (cc Compfight // Kham Tran)

Caption: Android might offer a cheap route into digital signage – but is that its only advantage? (cc Compfight // Kham Tran)

Both players and software have developed significantly during the two decades that digital signage has existed; technology has become smarter, smaller and cheaper and this has, in turn, driven adoption. A new surge is starting now thanks to Android, the Linux-based operating system owned by Google. Yet, while often identified as a cheaper alternative, Android’s real strength doesn’t lie in its price.

“Many DS software companies have launched support for Android and in some cases, bundled their software with Android HDMI sticks and boxes,” explains Jason Cremins, chief executive of Signagelive. “The vast majority of these devices were intended for the consumer market and, even with optimised software, were never built for unattended 24/7 use in digital signage.

“The reliability and robustness of the player being managed by Signagelive is hugely important to our reputation and the ability to scale our business globally with minimum support issues. For this reason, we have decided against re-branding a cheap Android device as Signagelive. Instead, we created a player API that enables reputable device manufacturers, such as Dension, to develop dedicated Android devices from the processor up that work with our Signagelive platform and replicate the capabilities of our Display Edition licence.”

Martijn Bakker, sales and marketing manager at Dise, corroborates that being obsessed with Android as a low-price option can backfire: “Sure, there are big savings to be made on player hardware – but you get what you pay for.”

Dise has been eyeing Android up for a few years. Its small form factor and fanless designs allow installation flexibility, but it was the operating system that really enticed the Swedish software developer. “The open source approach gives us as a software vendor a sense of confidence, since problems are easier to investigate, solve or circumvent than with proprietary operating systems,” adds Bakker.

Dynamax’s founder and director Howard Smith agrees, identifying the simpler operating system as a major reason for his company taking the Android route in September last year. “The biggest challenge has been finding a hardware solution that is robust enough for digital signage, and cost effective enough to make a real difference,” he comments.

But Android doesn’t present an obvious development path for every manufacturer. After initial research, BroadSign realised that it could have a hardware conundrum on its hands. “In 2011, BroadSign decided to invest time and money testing several dozen Android devices,” recalls Brian Dusho, the company’s chief executive. “We quickly saw that we had a decision to make: either we built a universal app for Google Play, or we integrated with a small list of certified hardware devices. It was necessary to modify the firmware, so we abandoned the App Store approach and settled on the device direction.” Coinciding with the company’s tenth anniversary, it launched, this April, its own Android-based player, applying functionality from other products to create a more affordable but nevertheless fully-featured option.

An Android-enabled device, however, is not enough. As screens increase in resolution and size, sharper images are a must; the hardware needs to have at least 16GB of hard drive storage, play 1080p HD full motion video and the latest Adobe Flash and HTML5 content. Plus, wifi is not always available, or reliable enough, so devices must include an ethernet port as a redundancy.

“Android, as an operating system, is not designed for digital signage,” Dusho continues. “It’s missing basic configuration parameters that allow you to set it, then forget it. These include hiding the task bar, dedicated boot into the signage player and administrator access in order to perform auto-upgrades. All of these require modifications to the firmware. Due to Android’s security model, you cannot modify the firmware from an App and that is why you shouldn’t install digital signage software from the Google Play Store [which provides apps for Android].”

Yet Israeli company NoviSign wants to prove this theory wrong. It promises to make any Android-based device digital signage-ready; end users can buy into its media player app for $15 (£9.30). Avi Vashkover, founder of NoviSign, says that Android opens up digital signage to everyone: “Until now, digital signage has failed to provide a simple, cost-effective solution for SMEs. We believe SMEs should enjoy almost the same capabilities as the big players, such as McDonalds, but at a fraction of the cost. Android is the answer.”

Android-based digital signage hardware connected to mobile technology can provide a more fluid communication with customers using GPS locators, voice recognition, face-detecting cameras, wifi hot spots, 4G connectivity and gyroscopic sensors, thereby changing the industry rapidly and for the better. We have only seen the beginning of it. It’s not just about cheaper options – it’s also about the wide range of choices and applications that Android has to offer.

First published 3 October 2013 – Output