Digital signage open source software adds more transparency and competition to our shuttered, marketing gobbledygook-dominated industry. In addition, knowledge of freely usable software often counteracts the misguided belief of many entrepreneurs that they have to reinvent the wheel.
In this article, learn what open source software (abbreviated OSS) means, what free offerings exist for digital signage, what business models they enable, how to recognize healthy open source projects, and why OSS especially in combination with the SMIL standard secures our business models.
What means Open-Source-Software?
Open source software for digital signage means sharing software in source code. This can be done publicly under a license acknowledged as free or specifically for a customer.
Free beer vs. Freedom
Richard Stallman, one of the masterminds of the open source movement coined the phrase: "Think free as in free speech, not free beer"
So if someone gifts you ten licenses on their digital signage cloud for free, that's comparable to free beer. Truly free, on the other hand, would be if you could download the CMS that runs the cloud for free and install it yourself. Only that is real Digital Signage Open-Source-Software.
There are dozens of free OSS licensing models that are more or less similar. The best known are:
GPL: GNU General Public License
BSD-Lizenz: Berkeley Software Distribution.
Apache-Lizenz: Apache Software Foundation
The Apache and BSD licenses are very permissive about commercial exploitation. You may modify BSD software to create derivative works and distribute them without source code. The Apache license even allows patenting of the derivative works.
The GPL is more restrictive and integrates a so-called copyleft. It also allows the publication of derivative works, but only under the same license. This ensures that the freedom that the developers grant their users is also preserved.
Of course there are more free licenses, different versions and subforms, but to explain all of them is beyond the scope here. I prefer the AGPLv3 for most of my projects.
Steve Ballmer tried to discredit the license as a cancer at the beginning of the 2000s. At the time, Linux, which is under the GPL, began to take more and more market share from Microsoft in the server market. In the meantime, he is history and hell has frozen over, because Microsoft has opened up for Linux as well as for open source.
Just as Steve Ballmer manifested smatterings at the time, various myths surround the duty to publish and commercialize OSS. Let's clarify this with a concrete example:
As you may know, I developed the Digital Signage Player, which is used by SmilControl and others. People as well as companies are allowed to copy, modify, even rename and sell it. The copyleft only requires that customers get access to the source code on demand.
So if company X extends the garlic-player and sells it together with a digital signage hardware, they don't have to make the modified source code available to me or publicly, but only to their respective customer. This is the copyleft agreement that Company X signs as soon as they use and modify the source code of the garlic-player.
If Company X fails to comply, they break the contract and there is a fallback to the normal copyright. In that case, it would be possible to claim royalties. As a rule, companies follow the GPL because they have to fear a serious loss of reputation as soon as the GPL violation becomes public. This has happened several times in the last decades and the license has been legally confirmed several times in the meantime.
What are the benefits of Open Source for Digital Signage?
There are four basic advantages of open source digital signage for companies.
You recognize the activity, honesty and culture of failure in a project or company before you decide to commit. Some salespeople promise the moon, which turns out to be "inaccurate" after the contract is signed. Open source saves you from such bluff packages.
A developer proves his competence and elegantly gains reputation through publicly visible development processes. The customer gets the previously mentioned transparency and the service provider shows real know-how without using airheaded marketing phrases.
This happens through more independence. A service provider may go out of business, go bankrupt, or get bought up. Open source, meanwhile, secures your business concept. You have the ability to choose someone else or participate in development or support processes yourself. The open nature and documentation allows for familiarization without complicated non-disclosure agreements and reduces dependencies.
Despite the fact that this term is clearly worn out, a culture of open collaboration is actually much more likely to enable innovation. Most of the real innovations of recent years, such as Big Data, NoSQL databases, artificial intelligence, and even the Internet itself, have come exclusively from the open source sector.
Yes yes, it's free of cost
Some call this the most important argument. I'll put it bluntly: Anyone who sees it that way has either not understood the meaning of open source or has never taken serious responsibility in a company.
Running a digital signage network successfully requires more than just installing Digital Signage Software. Screens require new content on a regular basis. This requires conception and planning. Someone also has to create and publish it. The same applies to the creation and evaluation of KPIs and statistics. Even small projects require support that can be reached at short notice to solve any problems that may arise.
Let's look at the Total Package
Digital signage hardware, support and services are the only way to get the complete package called digital signage. Open source developers usually do not understand software as a static product, but as a service. If we provide this continuously through support and accessibility, this represents a cost factor. Regardless of whether it is free or not. The business model of many open source companies is based on this narrative.
Which Digital Signage Open Source Software is available?
Here are some links to the GitHub directories of the digital signage open source software providers or developers I know:
You can recognize dubious directory providers by the fact that they often feature companies that only offer time-limited trial versions in their apparent top/best free software listings. For this reason, I link directly to the source code releases on GitHub and not to the company pages.
You can determine the health of a project by its activity in the so-called repository. GitHub offers some metrics like an update history, the number of open issues (tickets) and the activity of the developer. A software repository that has not been updated for years and dozens of ignored tickets represent concrete statements.
More Freedom through SMIL Compatibility
The manufacturers or developers listed above all offer veritable OSS. However, I'll go one step further: In my opinion, anyone who says open source should also say SMIL. Otherwise, it boils down to isolated solutions. The applications from the companies mentioned above do not work together apart from the two marked as SMIL compatible. For example: Xibo's media player does not work with Concerto's CMS, etc.
That would be like a website only working in Firefox and not in Safari or Chrome. The revolutionary triumph of the WWW and thus the multimedia Internet would not have been possible in the 1990s without a vendor-independent standard format like HTML. We would probably still be paying differently for each click on proprietary networks such as Compuserve, MSN, or ugly ISDN mailboxes.
Especially a growth industry like digital signage needs open standards. That's why we at SmilControl are not only committed to open source, but also to SMIL.
Business models with Digital Signage Open Source Software?
Three business models are emerging for digital signage.
Limited free versions
Partially OSS components
OSS with paid SaaS, development and maintenance contracts.
Although altruistic reasons or even fun in developing play a role in the decision for digital signage open source: Idealistic people also want to fill their fridges. However, some of the business models differ.
Limited Free Versions
In this case, free software versions do not have the full functionalities or control only a limited number of screens. Only the Pros or Enterprise versions include all plug-ins or functionalities. Screenly OSE follows this approach.
Partially OSS Components
Digital signage network operate as an arrangement of several components. In the case of software, these are usually the player and the management. Another option would be to publish either only the player or the device and content management as free software.
SmilControl and Xibo, among others, use this business model. At Xibo, the Android Player is licensable, and at our company we sell the SaaS CMS. By using SMIL, there is an additional advantage. In that case, a company can use other compatible SaaS solutions or develop its own CMS through the freely available documentation.
SaaS, Development contracts and Maintenance Agreements
As mentioned above, companies need a level of security. Therefore, most of them usually conclude maintenance or service level agreements (SLA). For complex digital signage solutions, these contracts are more lucrative than the one-time purchase of a license.
Free OSS enables independent service providers here. Prominent examples come from the web CMS industry. There are dozens of agencies that maintain web presences and web applications based on Typo3, WordPress, Drupal, etc., without being involved in the coding itself.
Also, the using company can easily get itself the necessary knowledge to maintain its installation through free documentation. Our industry unfortunately is still in the stone age when it comes to this.
Digital signage open source, like free OSS in general, is not about seemingly no cost. Free and unrestricted access to technology as well as documentation is the focus. This enables more collaboration, diversification and new business models, which in turn promote competition and innovation.