The Perspective 
Monday, 30 July 2007
Philip Hunter is the managing director of KioskCom Europe Self Service Expo. The 2007 Expo will be held November 6-7, 2007, at Olympia in London.
 
Although the Web has now changed the way we purchase everything from CDs and DVDs to vacations, flights and hotel bookings, people still want to get out of their houses and shop in person. After all, we are social animals.
 
However now that we have had a taste of how easy and convenient buying can be on line, we are less willing to stand in queues and have a limited choice of products and ranges when in-store. As a result, we see the rise of the “hybrid consumer."
 
There is an intense battle raging for a share of the wallet of the hybrid consumer – those moving between online and traditional interactions in search of the best customer experience. It is becoming patently clear that the Internet is not enough: successful multi-channel strategies require more than just online and traditional face-to-face options.
 
A key to satisfying the demands of the valuable hybrid is the adoption of the latest self-service technology. Indeed, the increasing number of organizations now using self-service technology are achieving a proven sales uplift of six to eight percent, as well as gaining improvements in customer service and a flexible business model. 
 
In an increasingly competitive market with fast rising customer acquisition costs, complacency demonstrated by many organizations could prove expensive. Self-service is becoming a critical component of overall strategy so as these technologies now come of age, can any customer-facing organization afford to miss out?
 
Proven model
 
There are some great success stories – notably from the airline industry. According to a recent survey by SITA, the airline industry’s move towards self-service is saving billions of dollars every year. Air Canada has confirmed it now costs $0.16 to check in travelers via a self-service kiosk as opposed to $3.68 to process the transaction via an employee.
 
And other industries are now following suit. Self-service kiosks in North American retail locations will rise 69 percent this year, according to Summit Research, and retailers show a six to eight percent increase in incremental sales when kiosks are placed in store.
 
Brave new world
 
Without doubt, the concept of self-service is changing. Gone are the days of the dated vending machine that accepted limited coin options. With the rise in secure payments via chip and PIN and the imminent arrival of card-based contactless payments to replace under-£10 cash transactions, self-service technologies are really coming of age.
 
Other innovations include the vending machine that allows customers to download music to their iPods from the same machine that sells Coke and kiosks that can recharge your mobile phone, to contactless Minority Report-style motion sensor screens where you can activate buttons, turn pages and interact without even touching a screen.
 
Flexible Business Model
 
The uplift in sales opportunity is clear. And this is a key component of the self-service model. With organizations increasingly using analytics to tailor products and services to meet the needs of the local demographic, the kiosk enables a far broader product range to be available irrespective of actual space.
 
For the retailer struggling to attain adequate space in the high street or looking to trial new formats, a kiosk provides customers with access to online catalogues that encompass a far broader range of goods than could ever be carried in store.
 
Furthermore, the kiosk provides the hybrid customer with the required speed and quality of service experience without queuing or interacting with staff.
 
However, while the technology is increasingly attractive, it is critical that organizations leverage self-service technology correctly to deliver an excellent and relevant customer experience. As a Forrester report asserts, “Kiosks are back on the retail radar screen due to increasing competition, technology advances, and changing consumer demands.”
 
However, the report continues, “Successful kiosks carry complex integration requirements and require careful consideration of consumer behavior and their attitudes toward technology. To avoid the big flop that kiosks experienced in the late '90s, kiosks require a focused approach and dedicated support; if deployed well, kiosks will yield tangible business benefits.” However, as most Web retailers now know, one bad experience means the ever fickle hybrid consumer will quickly go else where.
 
Innovative self-service technology combined with secure payment methods may attract the hybrid consumer, but getting it right first time applies as much in the kiosk as it does online. A poor or inconsistent experience, backed up by inadequate fulfillment processes will fail.
 
Self-service technologies are not just another option for the emerging multi-channel business strategy, they will be increasingly critical in redefining the entire consumer experience.
Posted by: Philip Hunter AT 12:26 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, 23 July 2007
On June 29, Apple released its iPhone to the public to much ballyhoo. A colleague of mine had to have this latest techno gadget and therefore paid someone to stand in line for him for a few hours so he could be among the first to own one.
 
When I saw him, I said, “Did you buy an iPhone?”
 
“Yes,” he beamed, and then produced the sleek device from its leather holster.
 
“Can I hold it?” I asked.
 
“Sure.”
 
“Can I touch a few buttons?”
 
“Of course,” he said.
 
I ogled its slimness, curved lines and weight in my hand. Since I’d seen the demo online and the commercials on TV, I knew exactly what to do. I wanted to see the album cover flow and use the flick motion of the touchscreen. I also wanted to use the pinching technique on a photo so I could see a photo expand and contract. I turned it sideways and watched with amazement how it switched from portrait to landscape. It did everything I expected.
 
Not wanting to be greedy and run down his battery (I’d heard about the battery life), I reluctantly handed him back the phone.
 
With all the excitement and buzz the iPhone has generated, it got me thinking: what if Apple made kiosks or digital signage?
 
I’m part of the majority of American businesspersons who use a PC. I’m happy to do so (or at least not unhappy) since ignorance is bliss. I also own an iPod so I do know a little about Apple’s interface.
 
In writing about Amazon.com’s new digital rights management free music offering, Time magazine author Lev Grossman recently put it this way, “There’s no way Amazon will match the silky-smooth user experience of the iTunes store – I mean, interface design and hardware integration are what Apple does.”
 
Apple hasn’t started making kiosks and digital signage for sale to the business market, but they have started using them in their own stores. A YouTube video posting shows two gentlemen assembling the in-store iPhone “interactive booths” for AT&T stores. The kiosk stands seven feet tall and features a vertical digital sign demonstrating the applications on the iPhone with a three-and-a-half minute video loop. In signature white, the display continues the clean look and feel we have come to know.
 
In Apple stores, a digital sign in a giant iPhone shell displays the video. There are also numerous postings on YouTube of mobs standing in line at stores around the country on June 29, the release date.
 
What can we learn from all this? If Apple consulted you on your self-service, kiosk or digital signage project here’s what I think they would say:
 
1.      Make a really good product that people want or that solves a problem. Do both and you’ll be in an even better position.
2.      If you can, create new categories of products to grab market share rather than competing against existing ones.
3.      Make your product so simple that your customers don’t need an instruction manual.
4.      Technology can be sexy. Use it to your advantage.
5.      Ensure that the user interface is as good (or better) than the shell it comes in.
6.      Make it fun to use. Create a positive emotional reaction.
7.      Generate buzz for your product.
8.      Most importantly, remember that it’s all about the experience.
Posted by: David Drain AT 12:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, 16 July 2007
As a new contributor to this site, I thought it might be helpful to devote this first article to my foundational beliefs, prejudices, thoughts and hopes around what we in the business refer to as "the Digital Signage Industry." In this way, I feel I can position this contribution for you, the reader, as well as establish my pedigree, so to speak, on why you might spend any of your valuable time reading what I have to say. This could be a dangerous strategy for a first column, but I feel compelled to give you "fair warning."
The digital signage business is still very new, as everyone will tell you. But it’s been around at least 10 years; just ask John Kirkpatrick. His fledgling company, FRED Systems, may have been the first digital signage company. I met John (now at 3M) when I was starting ActiveLight back in 1998.
 
The concept behind ActiveLight was to build a value-added distributor of advanced display products (plasma displays and large-format LCDs) that specialized in applications like digital signage. We even used the words "digital signage" in our original business plan.
 
Jeff Porter and Scala will tell you this concept has been around much longer. I believe Scala just celebrated its 20th anniversary at Digital Signage Expo, in fact. Be that as it may, I would say that digital signage has only taken on the status of an "industry" over the last few years – since around 2003.
 
That year, several things happened that kick-started this business. ActiveLight published the first Dynamic Digital Signage Resource Directory — the veritable "Yellow Pages" of the industry. It listed every company who considered themselves to be involved in digital signage at that time — around 300 companies I think. Also that year, NSCA created the Digital Signage Pavilion at the NSCA Expo, followed shortly thereafter by ExpoNation and the inaugural Digital Retailing Expo (both events sponsored by ActiveLight).
 
Thirdly, POPAI agreed to be the administrative body for the first Digital Signage Industry Association. This Association came about due to the efforts of a group of digital signage industry veterans, including Jeff Porter and John Kirkpatrick, as well as such Sean Moran of PRN, Jeff Dowell of Clarity (now of 3M), Brian Dusho (now at Broadsign), Dan Slott (Convergent/Technicolor), Manny Almagro (MarketForward) and several others who came together for a series of meetings around 2001 which I organized and dubbed as the "Digital Signage Superfriends."
 
So what does that make me? I am clearly a party to the revolution; a believer and evangelist for digital signage; a "hardware-guy-turned-marketing-man" for the future of this fledgling industry. While I no longer run ActiveLight (sold it to Electrograph in 2006) and have no direct responsibility for digital signage in my new position as vice president of business development for Planar Systems Inc., I remain a fervent believer and evangelist for digital signage, which is why I am writing this column.
 
OK, interesting history lesson, but where does that leave us in 2007? I would say that the digital signage industry has clearly evolved into a more complex and capable being than ever before. Examples of this can be seen in the headlines of stories circulating throughout the industry:
  • Wal-Mart and PRN announce expansion of the Wal-mart TV network
  • 3M acquires Mercury Online
  • Thomson acquires PRN and Convergent
  • Cisco acquires Tivela
  • Planar acquires Clarity Visual Systems
  • Target, Bank of America, Chevron (insert major brand name here) launch digital signage networks
  • Both Arbitron and Neilsen have active measurement programs to gauge the effectiveness of digital signage
  • IBM and Google host Keynote Presentations at 2007 Digital Signage Expo
These are clearly signs that the "industry" is coming of age: when blue-chip companies make significant investments through deployments and acquisitions. But even this is not the big news, in my opinion. These companies, along with the major display manufacturers — all of whom have launched digital signage products or initiatives — are reacting to the current "buzz-factor" around digital signage. The more interesting news to me is the way the new and smaller companies are re-writing the rules about digital signage into business models that the companies above (with the possible exception of Google) haven’t even thought of yet. For example:
  • SeeSaw Networks emerges as central clearinghouse for digital signage advertising on non-homogenous networks
  • Wireless Ronin goes public and establishes $90 million market cap (on less than $3 million sales)
  • Ripple lands a full page article in USA Today for its Coffeeshop Network
  • No less than three companies are competing for the gas-station-pump-top digital signage market
  • DS-IQ provides analytics middleware to dynamically measure and improve the effectiveness of digital signage networks and content
There are also cautionary tales and warning signs that we must heed if we are counting on this industry for our long-term success. Along with every success above, we could find an equally spectacular failure. I haven’t done the analysis, but I am willing to bet that a large percentage of the companies who were listed in the inaugural Digital Signage Resource Directory in 2003 either don’t exist or have morphed themselves into something else in order to survive. Are we paying attention, and what can we learn from these false-starts?
 
As I walked the floor of the Digital Signage Expo in Chicago, I was struck by the professional presence of the large companies and brands as listed above, and also by the sheer number of interesting and creative smaller companies, many of which I’d never heard of, who were staking a claim to a piece of the digital signage industry pie. My goal has always been to focus on growing the pie, and thereby benefit as my piece of that pie also grows.
 
Clearly, there are an awful lot of people and companies who feel the same way, and are devoting themselves and their companies to transitioning digital signage into the kind of industry we can all be proud to be a part of "at the beginning." I hope to highlight many of these companies, and what makes them interesting and noteworthy, in my coming articles. Please help me by dropping me a note or a question on what you are surprised by, interested in or curious about concerning the digital signage market and industry.
Posted by: Brad Gleeson AT 11:45 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Friday, 13 July 2007
As a new contributor to this site, I thought it might be helpful to devote this first article to my foundational beliefs, prejudices, thoughts and hopes around what we in the business refer to as "the Digital Signage Industry." In this way, I feel I can position this contribution for you, the reader, as well as establish my pedigree, so to speak, on why you might spend any of your valuable time reading what I have to say. This could be a dangerous strategy for a first column, but I feel compelled to give you "fair warning."
 
The digital signage business is still very new, as everyone will tell you. But it’s been around at least 10 years; just ask John Kirkpatrick. His fledgling company, FRED Systems, may have been the first digital signage company. I met John (now at 3M) when I was starting ActiveLight back in 1998.
 
The concept behind ActiveLight was to build a value-added distributor of advanced display products (plasma displays and large-format LCDs) that specialized in applications like digital signage. We even used the words "digital signage" in our original business plan.
 
Jeff Porter and Scala will tell you this concept has been around much longer. I believe Scala just celebrated its 20th anniversary at Digital Signage Expo, in fact. Be that as it may, I would say that digital signage has only taken on the status of an "industry" over the last few years – since around 2003.
 
That year, several things happened that kick-started this business. ActiveLight published the first Dynamic Digital Signage Resource Directory — the veritable "Yellow Pages" of the industry. It listed every company who considered themselves to be involved in digital signage at that time — around 300 companies I think. Also that year, NSCA created the Digital Signage Pavilion at the NSCA Expo, followed shortly thereafter by ExpoNation and the inaugural Digital Retailing Expo (both events sponsored by ActiveLight).
 
Thirdly, POPAI agreed to be the administrative body for the first Digital Signage Industry Association. This Association came about due to the efforts of a group of digital signage industry veterans, including Jeff Porter and John Kirkpatrick, as well as such Sean Moran of PRN, Jeff Dowell of Clarity (now of 3M), Brian Dusho (now at Broadsign), Dan Slott (Convergent/Technicolor), Manny Almagro (MarketForward) and several others who came together for a series of meetings around 2001 which I organized and dubbed as the "Digital Signage Superfriends."
 
So what does that make me? I am clearly a party to the revolution; a believer and evangelist for digital signage; a "hardware-guy-turned-marketing-man" for the future of this fledgling industry. While I no longer run ActiveLight (sold it to Electrograph in 2006) and have no direct responsibility for digital signage in my new position as vice president of business development for Planar Systems Inc., I remain a fervent believer and evangelist for digital signage, which is why I am writing this column.
 
OK, interesting history lesson, but where does that leave us in 2007? I would say that the digital signage industry has clearly evolved into a more complex and capable being than ever before. Examples of this can be seen in the headlines of stories circulating throughout the industry:
  • Wal-Mart and PRN announce expansion of the Wal-mart TV network
  • 3M acquires Mercury Online
  • Thomson acquires PRN and Convergent
  • Cisco acquires Tivela
  • Planar acquires Clarity Visual Systems
  • Target, Bank of America, Chevron (insert major brand name here) launch digital signage networks
  • Both Arbitron and Neilsen have active measurement programs to gauge the effectiveness of digital signage
  • IBM and Google host Keynote Presentations at 2007 Digital Signage Expo
These are clearly signs that the "industry" is coming of age: when blue-chip companies make significant investments through deployments and acquisitions. But even this is not the big news, in my opinion. These companies, along with the major display manufacturers — all of whom have launched digital signage products or initiatives — are reacting to the current "buzz-factor" around digital signage. The more interesting news to me is the way the new and smaller companies are re-writing the rules about digital signage into business models that the companies above (with the possible exception of Google) haven’t even thought of yet. For example:
  • SeeSaw Networks emerges as central clearinghouse for digital signage advertising on non-homogenous networks
  • Wireless Ronin goes public and establishes $90 million market cap (on less than $3 million sales)
  • Ripple lands a full page article in USA Today for its Coffeeshop Network
  • No less than three companies are competing for the gas-station-pump-top digital signage market
  • DS-IQ provides analytics middleware to dynamically measure and improve the effectiveness of digital signage networks and content
There are also cautionary tales and warning signs that we must heed if we are counting on this industry for our long-term success. Along with every success above, we could find an equally spectacular failure. I haven’t done the analysis, but I am willing to bet that a large percentage of the companies who were listed in the inaugural Digital Signage Resource Directory in 2003 either don’t exist or have morphed themselves into something else in order to survive. Are we paying attention, and what can we learn from these false-starts?
 
As I walked the floor of the Digital Signage Expo in Chicago, I was struck by the professional presence of the large companies and brands as listed above, and also by the sheer number of interesting and creative smaller companies, many of which I’d never heard of, who were staking a claim to a piece of the digital signage industry pie. My goal has always been to focus on growing the pie, and thereby benefit as my piece of that pie also grows.
 
Clearly, there are an awful lot of people and companies who feel the same way, and are devoting themselves and their companies to transitioning digital signage into the kind of industry we can all be proud to be a part of "at the beginning." I hope to highlight many of these companies, and what makes them interesting and noteworthy, in my coming articles. Please help me by dropping me a note or a question on what you are surprised by, interested in or curious about concerning the digital signage market and industry.
 
Click here to access the SSKA Feedback Forum, where you can contact Brad in the "Ask Brad" section.
Posted by: Brad Gleeson AT 12:39 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, 09 July 2007
The writer is president of Summit Research Associates Inc.
 
The kiosk industry is booming, especially in the retail sector. When digital photography kiosks are included in the count of retail kiosks, fully 50 percent of all kiosks fall into this category.
 
The key to successful kiosk deployments is location, location, location. A successful placement relies on a true understanding of shopper habits. Often deployers feel that they have placed a kiosk in the best possible location but discover that usage is far lower than expected. To get some idea why this happens, we will take a look at one of the fast-growing venues for kiosks, supermarkets.
 
Research was conducted at grocery stores in the western United States by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. They concentrated on how shoppers navigate stores with their carts. Their findings should be considered when planning future kiosk deployments in these types of venues.
 
Shoppers do not weave up and down each aisle as previously thought. They zigzag to specific aisles sometimes avoiding whole areas of a store. For kiosk deployments, end caps have proven to be some of the best locations. More people see products displayed at each end of an aisle than anywhere else in a store.
 
Shoppers spend less time in the aisles than assumed; instead they stick to the perimeter of the store, using it as the main road with quick side trips to the aisles they need. As a result, products displayed at the ends of the aisles near the perimeter are vital for luring the shoppers in.
 
They also zip in and out of the aisles. Once they enter an aisle, shoppers rarely make it to the other end. As a result, products located in the center of an aisle are frequently ignored.
  
A good example validating this recommendation was found at Home Depot in a pilot project they conducted at 15 stores along the East Coast. The kiosk was not only placed in the middle of a long aisle, but it was located in a niche — set in from the aisle by three or four feet so that it was not visible from either end. People could not find the kiosk. And, even worse, there was no signage on the aisle to draw the shoppers’ attention to it.
 
Just like U.S. drivers, shoppers like to enter a store on the right or turn right as soon as they enter the store. Then shoppers prefer to shop in a counterclockwise direction. A key finding was that shoppers who enter on the left spend less time and money shopping.
 
The highly successful Giant Super Food Store kiosks, especially the flagship concept store in Camp Hill, Pa., is an excellent example of a project that has followed this advice. The more-than 91,000-square-foot store has 25 kiosks, all situated around the periphery. Customer usage and the number of transactions continues to grow each month.
Posted by: Francie Mendelsohn AT 12:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, 02 July 2007
 
Editor’s note: The writer is executive vice president of BroadSign International.
 
The two operating systems most widely used for digital signage networks are Windows and Linux. The purpose of this article is to help you get an idea of the advantages and the total cost of ownership of both in order to make an informed decision about choosing an OS for your digital signage network.
 
Many startup network operators, trying to minimize their upfront investment burden, choose Linux because they don’t have to pay for the license. Some of them discover later that the resulting cost of running Linux is not necessarily lower than that of using Windows.

When is Linux the right choice for your network? What are the real strengths and weaknesses of each OS?
 
In terms of functionality, the two operating systems are essentially equal. The common perception, however, is that Linux is "free", or cheaper to operate than Windows. Here are some thoughts on the subject that we have summarized based on our field experience and discussions with clients.
 
Microsoft Owns Windows. Who Owns Linux?
 
Microsoft clearly dominates the market. A new Windows version appears every 2-5 years. You do have to pay for a Windows license and the fee depends on the version, i.e., XP Professional, XP Embedded, Server 2003 or Vista.

Linux, on the other hand, has no central owner and most of its components are free (as in: freedom to copy, modify, and distribute) software. This allows many amateur enthusiasts, technology companies, and non-profit organizations to extend and publish their own Linux distributions. Some of the most well-known distributions are Fedora Core/Red Hat, SuSe/Novell, and Debian/Ubuntu.
 
Each one of the major Linux distributions has a free version, however in this case support is usually limited to what the community can provide through online forums, and mailing lists. Some providers offer special enterprise versions for a fee that covers direct support from the vendor, and others offer support as an on-demand service.
 
Is Linux Truly Free?
 
The zero cost of licensing for free Linux distributions is often the most attractive aspect of this operating system choice, especially for large digital signage networks. But this may be misleading, as licensing fee is only part of the overall expenses that you have to project.
 
The most commonly overlooked cost related to deploying a network of Linux players is that of hardware support. In fact, hardware support service providers are the market to which enterprise Linux distributors are catering. All enterprise versions come with a list of officially supported hardware, and a support schedule (e.g. forward compatible for five years). This is similar to what Microsoft has been doing with new releases of Windows for well over a decade.
 
Such support is not usually available with the free versions, though notably the Ubuntu Linux distribution comes with a guarantee of forward compatibility for five years. This is why we at BroadSign have standardized our Linux offerings around this distribution.
 
However, in order to fix problems and bugs you may encounter in a free Linux distribution, you have to either wait until they are resolved by the open-source community, or invest (sometimes a lot) into custom development.
 
Standardizing on a Playback PC Configuration
 
Windows versus Linux has been one of the longest-standing debates among IT specialists. They argue about which system is more stable, more secure, or yields higher performance. We have discovered that there are no inherent overwhelming advantages in any of the two operating systems. The stability, security and efficiency of a system really depend on which environment your IT team is more proficient in: Linux or Windows.
 
One of the grave mistakes is to select a hardware platform and an operating system separately. Another one is not to test the selected hardware/OS combination for performance and endurance.
 
Most device drivers have been tuned and tested for standard desktop uses, not for usage in an appliance-style configuration. It is therefore important to test many configurations before standardizing on a playback PC.
 
If Content is King, then the Operating System is the Kingdom
 
Now in terms of content playback functionality, Windows Media is a major factor to consider when choosing between Windows and Linux for digital signage. The vast majority of digital signage software packages use Windows Media Player as their playback engine. This has the benefit of leveraging any Windows Media-specific hardware acceleration, and being able to play all the media types that are supported by Window Media Player.
 
There are downsides to Windows Media Player as well. The most obvious one is it only runs on Windows. One that is less noticeable is that it does not come standard with MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, which means that you must acquire licenses for these codecs (media formats) from an independent vendor, unless you plan on only using WMV and MPEG-1. These, among other reasons, are why here at BroadSign we developed our own playback engine that is independent of Windows Media Player. All the codecs we support (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4) come included with our software, and are the industry leading standard formats. If you need to play Windows Media Video, we can run this in our proprietary player on Windows as well, because in this specific case we will use Windows Media Player.
 
In all other cases BroadSign Player can run both on Windows and on Linux platforms.
 
Total Cost of Hardware Ownership
One of the biggest advantages of the Windows operating system is that it supports all the newest hardware. Because of market pressures, hardware manufacturers always develop device drivers for Windows. While some provide them for Linux, not all of many different distributions of Linux are covered.
 
Driver support in Linux is not really a problem for PC components that are in widespread usage, or that are a little older. The DIY-and-share philosophy of the Linux community and increased investments by corporations integrating Linux into their enterprise means that somebody in the world will eventually fix the problem and everyone will benefit. The shortcoming here is that you may have to wait until you get the required driver.
 
Another issue for hardware on Linux is that some hardware components are developed exclusively for Windows. An example of this is the WinModem (aka SoftModem). This modem is much less expensive than a hardware modem because it replaced the DSP chip with DSP software that runs on the PC’s CPU; software that is written by the vendor exclusively for Windows. This trend seems to be spreading into the video card market, as market leaders like Nvidia and ATI are developing extensions specifically for Windows Media.
 
The above factors may increase the total cost of hardware ownership for Linux users.
 
Conclusion
 
From a digital signage operations perspective, there are more things in common between Linux and Windows than there are differences. What is important is that you select your hardware in conjunction with your operating system and digital signage software. While Windows has an upfront licensing cost, its costs are fixed and predictable. Linux has the potential of a lower total cost of ownership, but much investment must go into the expertise for selecting the hardware platform, otherwise costs can balloon out of control.
 
In the end, regardless of the operating system you select, the most important determinant of the total cost of ownership is the competence of the team behind selecting and configuring your playback platform, as well as that of the support team.
 
There is no magic bullet that will let you dramatically cut costs if you choose Linux. If you don’t already have a Linux-savvy IT department, any cost saving on the license fee will backfire with the increased cost of training or hiring qualified people.
Posted by: Brian Dusho AT 12:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, 02 July 2007
Editor’s note: The writer is executive vice president of BroadSign International.
 
The two operating systems most widely used for digital signage networks are Windows and Linux. The purpose of this article is to help you get an idea of the advantages and the total cost of ownership of both in order to make an informed decision about choosing an OS for your digital signage network.
 
Many startup network operators, trying to minimize their upfront investment burden, choose Linux because they don’t have to pay for the license. Some of them discover later that the resulting cost of running Linux is not necessarily lower than that of using Windows.

When is Linux the right choice for your network? What are the real strengths and weaknesses of each OS?
 
In terms of functionality, the two operating systems are essentially equal. The common perception, however, is that Linux is "free", or cheaper to operate than Windows. Here are some thoughts on the subject that we have summarized based on our field experience and discussions with clients.
 
Microsoft Owns Windows. Who Owns Linux?
 
Microsoft clearly dominates the market. A new Windows version appears every 2-5 years. You do have to pay for a Windows license and the fee depends on the version, i.e., XP Professional, XP Embedded, Server 2003 or Vista.

Linux, on the other hand, has no central owner and most of its components are free (as in: freedom to copy, modify, and distribute) software. This allows many amateur enthusiasts, technology companies, and non-profit organizations to extend and publish their own Linux distributions. Some of the most well-known distributions are Fedora Core/Red Hat, SuSe/Novell, and Debian/Ubuntu.
 
Each one of the major Linux distributions has a free version, however in this case support is usually limited to what the community can provide through online forums, and mailing lists. Some providers offer special enterprise versions for a fee that covers direct support from the vendor, and others offer support as an on-demand service.
 
Is Linux Truly Free?
 
The zero cost of licensing for free Linux distributions is often the most attractive aspect of this operating system choice, especially for large digital signage networks. But this may be misleading, as licensing fee is only part of the overall expenses that you have to project.
 
The most commonly overlooked cost related to deploying a network of Linux players is that of hardware support. In fact, hardware support service providers are the market to which enterprise Linux distributors are catering. All enterprise versions come with a list of officially supported hardware, and a support schedule (e.g. forward compatible for five years). This is similar to what Microsoft has been doing with new releases of Windows for well over a decade.
 
Such support is not usually available with the free versions, though notably the Ubuntu Linux distribution comes with a guarantee of forward compatibility for five years. This is why we at BroadSign have standardized our Linux offerings around this distribution.
 
However, in order to fix problems and bugs you may encounter in a free Linux distribution, you have to either wait until they are resolved by the open-source community, or invest (sometimes a lot) into custom development.
 
Standardizing on a Playback PC Configuration
 
Windows versus Linux has been one of the longest-standing debates among IT specialists. They argue about which system is more stable, more secure, or yields higher performance. We have discovered that there are no inherent overwhelming advantages in any of the two operating systems. The stability, security and efficiency of a system really depend on which environment your IT team is more proficient in: Linux or Windows.
 
One of the grave mistakes is to select a hardware platform and an operating system separately. Another one is not to test the selected hardware/OS combination for performance and endurance.
 
Most device drivers have been tuned and tested for standard desktop uses, not for usage in an appliance-style configuration. It is therefore important to test many configurations before standardizing on a playback PC.
 
If Content is King, then the Operating System is the Kingdom
 
Now in terms of content playback functionality, Windows Media is a major factor to consider when choosing between Windows and Linux for digital signage. The vast majority of digital signage software packages use Windows Media Player as their playback engine. This has the benefit of leveraging any Windows Media-specific hardware acceleration, and being able to play all the media types that are supported by Window Media Player.
 
There are downsides to Windows Media Player as well. The most obvious one is it only runs on Windows. One that is less noticeable is that it does not come standard with MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, which means that you must acquire licenses for these codecs (media formats) from an independent vendor, unless you plan on only using WMV and MPEG-1. These, among other reasons, are why here at BroadSign we developed our own playback engine that is independent of Windows Media Player. All the codecs we support (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4) come included with our software, and are the industry leading standard formats. If you need to play Windows Media Video, we can run this in our proprietary player on Windows as well, because in this specific case we will use Windows Media Player.
 
In all other cases BroadSign Player can run both on Windows and on Linux platforms.
 
Total Cost of Hardware Ownership
One of the biggest advantages of the Windows operating system is that it supports all the newest hardware. Because of market pressures, hardware manufacturers always develop device drivers for Windows. While some provide them for Linux, not all of many different distributions of Linux are covered.
 
Driver support in Linux is not really a problem for PC components that are in widespread usage, or that are a little older. The DIY-and-share philosophy of the Linux community and increased investments by corporations integrating Linux into their enterprise means that somebody in the world will eventually fix the problem and everyone will benefit. The shortcoming here is that you may have to wait until you get the required driver.
 
Another issue for hardware on Linux is that some hardware components are developed exclusively for Windows. An example of this is the WinModem (aka SoftModem). This modem is much less expensive than a hardware modem because it replaced the DSP chip with DSP software that runs on the PC’s CPU; software that is written by the vendor exclusively for Windows. This trend seems to be spreading into the video card market, as market leaders like Nvidia and ATI are developing extensions specifically for Windows Media.
 
The above factors may increase the total cost of hardware ownership for Linux users.
 
Conclusion
 
From a digital signage operations perspective, there are more things in common between Linux and Windows than there are differences. What is important is that you select your hardware in conjunction with your operating system and digital signage software. While Windows has an upfront licensing cost, its costs are fixed and predictable. Linux has the potential of a lower total cost of ownership, but much investment must go into the expertise for selecting the hardware platform, otherwise costs can balloon out of control.
 
In the end, regardless of the operating system you select, the most important determinant of the total cost of ownership is the competence of the team behind selecting and configuring your playback platform, as well as that of the support team.
 
There is no magic bullet that will let you dramatically cut costs if you choose Linux. If you don’t already have a Linux-savvy IT department, any cost saving on the license fee will backfire with the increased cost of training or hiring qualified people.
Posted by: Brian Dusho and David Womeldorf AT 11:46 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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