Why Android (was) Not Digital Signage's Best Friend

Broken Android

Update: we've since changed a word in the title from "is" to "was", largely because we found a solution as entailed in IAdea “heavily modify the Android source code to make it more robust, and more secure”.

Several digital signage software companies have "announced" their Android player software since the beginning of this year (none that we know are shipping with production quality yet, by the way). IAdea recently spoke to several of them, and a few have told us that they have serious concerns that Android may not be the best platform to invest in. Embracing SMIL and HTML5 seems to be a better choice.

Android is not one platform but fifteen! (if you don't count hardware differences). What?! If you don't believe us, take a look at Google's official documents listing all 15 flavors of the Android API. If you are the technical guy in the company who has been asked to do the job, you probably have already found out about this. You must have been bombarded with questions like "why doens't your software work on the Kindle Fire?" If you are the marketing guy in the company, please give your R&D fellas a break. They are telling you their true pain and you would have agreed if you knew how difficult it is to get an app to look right on the Adroid tablet, as demonstrated vividly by Apple's CEO Tim Cook. Google is managing its platform so poorly that just recently "interest in Android phone app development has dropped 4.7 percent".

Price of Android tablets will remain high. This is due to Android seriously losing the battle on the tablet front. Most people would probably agree with this, seeing the success of Apple's iPad which is reported to have taken 73% of the tablet market, whereas no Android tablet owns more than 5%. Even among all Android devices, Google tracks the share of devices with 7" or larger display (Google's "xlarge" form factor) to be just around 5% of all Android devices in use. So while you may hear people still upbeat about Android devices, its success is really limited to mobile phones.

The consequence is that the supply of Android tablets will stay low, and price of all components not shared with the phone form factor (such as the 7" or 10" touch screens) will stay high. According to an industry insider, most Android tablet makers are betting on the 7" size "because the iPad is not competing in that size" [yet. Ed.]. For practical use in digital signage, however, a larger screen is needed. The price of a 10" Android tablet is around $400-500, close to twice of its 7" sibling and significantly more expensive than a 10-inch IAdea digital signboard, which works merrily with most top CMS software options today via SMIL.

We can go on and list a dozen reasons why although Android may sound good on the surface, it really does not offer the right technology for use in the public space. However we would like to leave that lecture to your engineers who we are sure can provide you that list and more in no time.

When we spoke to our software partners, they told us many valuable observations that we would like to share here:

  • Nobody cares if your system is running on Android as long as it delivers and plays according to schedule.
  • We talk about Android because it sounds cool, but we really don't know what to do with it.
  • We are going do one proof-of-concept and see if any business comes along. We don't really have a paying Android customer today.

Is there a solution? We think so.

Digital signage is about content that is dynamic and attractive, delivered on schedule and played back perfectly. What you need to achieve these while taking advantage of the hardware available is SMIL and HTML5. A recent survey indicates that more developers are interested in developing HTML5-based web apps than native Android tablet apps. An HTML5 web app will run across iOS, Android, and the upcoming Windows 8 from Microsoft. It will accomplish your much needed proof-of-concept and more. Best of all, it runs on all IAdea HTML5 Web Appliances today!

So if you are still debating whether you should move your digital signage assests to the Android platform, we'd say targeting HTML5 combined with SMIL open standard is a clearly wiser choice.



Well, here we are SEP 2013 a year later and how has IAdea's forecast worked out? NOT

The problem as I saw it from day one (and as I tried to express to IAdea themselves as well as many other vendors) is the artificial and false economy digital signage vendors have created and tried to maintain. In the grand scheme of things they were bound to run out of customers who could pay several hundreds of dollars for a media player device for each screen. Now we see $35 Google ChromeCast devices not to mention dozens of Android TV boxes and sticks. That is what the lessons of economy of scale has taught us.

Too bad reality has shown the digital signage vendors have been arrogant and bad students that have failed 1st grade of economics which teach customers in every market are sensitive to price vs cost and entry into new markets is won by those with the least price to enter the market that offer the least cost to sustain the use of the product or service.

Digital signage vendors put this bass ackwards with high expense to enter and low cost to operate. Well, I am ignoring the high ongoing costs of content to make a point here okay because that is another context that the topic of HTML and the use of SMIL and why Anroid is not the answer and such.

TV is another device platform I advised was not to be dismissed as --all-- digital signage vendors have done with their phoney business models that used FUD to warn about the "dangers" of using TV sets as screens. Reality has proven that nonsense to be another reason signage vendors are considered to by like used car salemen. Hence, but for the wealthiest markets that are at the tip of the iceberg the rest of the markets have waited and watched and along came Android warts and all kicking @ss in every market it can be used: because it is FREE.

Not like digital signage FREE which is a big stinking lie but FREE as in no price to pay to acquire, no price to pay to use and unlike the cockroaches like Roku and so many others absolutely no barriers to use commercially.

Finally, as it pertains to HTML and SMIL I do agree with IAdea's premise as most of us do however IAdea's biggest mistake as well as the mistake of so many other vendors is the fact that SMIL does not run in any browsers.

Hence customers learn there is yet more rightly perceived phony rational to buy over-priced media player devices most types of customers simply do not want to pay for to run what they perceive as a slide show when any of the $300 microcomputers can run just fine not to mention the other benefits of using a PC per se --and-- they can use their own existing TV sets as the screens in so many markets where the over-priced media players will never sell. Ever.

If IAdea wanted to be successful with HTML and SMIL the company should have invested in developing a plug-in for browsers so designers and developers could test their work in a browser. Just because Apple caused the move away from using browser plug-ins that move really only affected mass market playback and does not mean browser plug-ins will no longer run in a browser.

Either IE, Chrome or Firefox, IAdea simply needed to pick one and designers and developers would have been and will be happy to use IAdea's choice and act of LEADERSHIP for testing their work. Add the fact that there is little to no SMIL documentation and working examples and using SMIL becomes a big stinker that is not a solution at all.

So here we are, warts and all Android is winning again and again and again and as for device fragmentation all Android devices support the earliest stable releases of Android so let's say Android 2.0 Eclaire for example as there is NOTHING in any later version of Android which cannot be developed in 2.0 or earlier that will not run on any Kindle or any other such device that will run any signage application because when all the bullsh!t is stripped away signage is nothing more than a slide show when it runs on the client device.

I agree with many of the points in this article after spending the last 2 years developing a digital signage solution for Android. I can confirm that Android fragmentation is a nightmare and getting a player app to work on all devices reliably for 24/7 operation has been a massive challenge.

Unfortunately the built in Android WebView component is not suited to 24/7 operation. Forget about Adobe Flash, complicated HTML, HTML5 video - you will not achieve performance or stability, particularly on low end (read inexpensive) devices that are desirable for digital signage.

What we have done is offload much of the hard work (such as rendering complicated html) to the server and deliver content to the player in a format suitable for displaying using reliable, lightweight display components. We also re-encode videos to guarantee efficient hardware playback. This has allowed us to build a digital signage platform that can support pretty much any Android device. We have seen considerable interest from digital signage partners wanting to sell inexpensive HDMI android devices.

Raspberry Pi is another hardware device we are supporting. Unfortunately, I doubt the Pi will ever run HTML5 and SMIL, its too underpowered.

If you are interested in looking at our solution, we have a technical preview site and demonstration server online. Search for "TargetR" - you may need to tell Google you meant TargetR and not Target - annoying :)

<p>I use Android for Digital Signage, I use&nbsp;[removed] Software, works OK for me</p>

<p>I&#39;m using Android Based Digital Signage, I did it for my father&#39;s 4 wine stores (he doesn&#39;t distinguish between Android, Windows PC, or kitchen stove for that matter). The players price was 75$ (Made in China, would you have guessed) and works perfectly with a SaaS Digital Signage solution provided by [removed]. I don&#39;t need more than that. The alternatives were much more costly Avi.</p>

For those concerned and currently using Android solutions for digital signage, don't be. I agree with Kofi's response. Do not be too quick to dismiss Android as a suitable platform for digital content. We see Android used heavily in the healthcare industry, one of the largest growing markets consistently. We at Videotel Digital support Android system integration with our HD2600 industrial DVD player to allow communication between an Android platform with our HD2600, essentially delivering a very cost effective digital signage solution.

Using Android does not mean "native Android tablet apps". We are leveraging Android to supply Digital signage using their rather good HTML5 Webview on ARM devices.

Also you talk of "tablets". What about the LG/Samsung TVs coming out in the market with Android hardware embedded inside it?!

I totally agree HTML5 is the way to go, but for Digital solution vendors, the "current x86 product offerings" will radically shift to ARM/Android. Webconverger hopes to support both architectures, though we are also mainly x86 based currently.

I think it's more interesting for the industry to flesh out whether the Android APK or a ROM re-install is the way forward here for deployments. We have noticed several limitations with the `adb install` approach.

Totally agreed that HTML5 is the preferred way to go rather than native apps. 

Android is not the only platrom that we would used for signage in the future but for sure would be on of the fast growing and interesting paltform for Digital signage players see for example software by novisign http://www.novisign.com/Android-based-digital-signage.htm they keep good support for conventional digital signage players however now adding the android option. All the points above are good and important we guess days will tell...

IAdea points on android put together the current good picture on the andtoid space. Sharom we also agree with you that android is great thus looking at that a commbinetion of SMIL, HTML5 and Android would probably be teh way to go

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