Digital Signage & Open Source Software » What You Need to Know

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, we will answer the following questions:
  • What open-source software (abbreviated OSS) mean?
  • What free offerings exist for digital signage?
  • Which business models can be used?
  • How to recognize healthy open-source projects?
  • Why OSS, especially with the SMIL standard, secures business models.
Digital Signage Open-Source

What does Open-Source-Software mean?

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 in the cloud for free and install it yourself. Only that is real Digital Signage Open-Source-Software.

Free licenses

There are dozens of free OSS licensing models that are more or less similar. The best known are:

  • GPL: GNU General Public License
  • BSD-License: Berkeley Software Distribution.
  • Apache-License: 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. Meanwhile, he is history and hell has frozen over because Microsoft has opened up for Linux as well as for open-source.

GPL-Myths

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 customers. 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 meanwhile.

What are the benefits of Open-Source for Digital Signage?

There are four basic advantages of open-source digital signage for companies.
  1. Transparency
  2. Reputation
  3. Investment security
  4. Innovation

Transparency

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.

Reputation

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 air headed marketing phrases.

Investment Security

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 can 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.

Innovation

Although 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 is 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 regularly. 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.

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.

Comparison of Open-Source vs. Proprietary Software

Open-source and proprietary software each come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Here is a comparison of both types based on various parameters:

Open-Source Proprietary
Access to Source Code Defined by its source code being available for anyone to inspect, modify, or distribute. This offers users the ability to customize the software to fit their needs. Closed-source software is copyrighted, and the source code is not shared with the public. This means users cannot modify the software and must use it as is.
Costs Most open-source software is freely available. Though there may be costs associated with support, customization, or additional features, the basic version is typically free. Proprietary software often comes with licensing fees. You must purchase a license to use the software, and there might also be additional costs for support or upgrades.
Support Support for open-source software typically comes from the community of users and developers. While this can be robust and timely, it can sometimes be less consistent or reliable than a dedicated support team. There is also the opportunity to get paid support from agencies or specialized service. Proprietary software regularly comes with support from the company that developed it. Occasionally, this includes guaranteed response times and dedicated help resources, but at a cost.
Innovation and Flexibility Open-source software is seen as more innovative because anyone can contribute to its development. This also allows it to be more flexible and adaptable to specific user needs. Development is controlled by a specific organization, which may or may not be receptive to user feedback. This could limit its flexibility and potentially its pace of innovation.
Security Seen mostly as more secure because its source code can be reviewed by anyone, which allows for many eyes to spot and fix potential vulnerabilities. However, it also means that potential attackers can study the code for vulnerabilities. Security relies on the principle of security through obscurity. The source code is not public. Potential attackers cannot easily find and exploit vulnerabilities. Beside this is a daydream in most cases, this also means fewer people can spot and address potential issues, and users must trust the developing company's security practices.
Quality and Stability The quality of can vary, but popular and widely used open-source projects often have high-quality code due to the wide community of contributors. However, less popular projects may suffer from a lack of resources or expertise. Proprietary software is typically expected to maintain a high level of quality and stability, as the company's reputation depends on it. However, the lack of public scrutiny can result in lower quality or overlooked bugs.
Longevity This depends on the community. If the community remains active and invested, the software can continue to evolve and improve over time. If interest wanes, the project may stagnate or be abandoned. The longevity of proprietary software is tied to the company that produces it. If the company goes out of business or discontinues the software, users might be left without support or updates.

Each type of software has its place, and the best choice often depends on the specific circumstances and needs of the user or organization.

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:

Tips for Research

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 developers. 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.
  1. Limited free versions
  2. Partially OSS components
  3. 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 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

A Digital signage network operates 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 typically 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.

Furthermore, 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.

Open-Source Digital Signage

Limitations & Challenges of Digital Signage with Open-Source-Software

While there are many open-source solutions for digital signage, there can be some limitations and challenges that users might face.

  • Technical Skill Required: Implementing an open-source solution often requires a fair amount of technical knowledge, including understanding how to install and configure the software, as well as how to troubleshoot any issues that may arise.
  • Lack of Dedicated Support: Open-source solutions usually rely on community support, which means that getting help for your specific problem could be difficult. You'll have to rely on forums or user communities, and you may not always find a solution to your specific issue.
  • Updates and Patches: Open-source software is typically updated by a community of developers. While this can lead to rapid innovation, it can also mean that updates are sporadic, and you might have to manually apply patches and updates. There may also be compatibility issues with new updates.

  • Integration with Other Systems: Integrating an open-source digital signage solution with other systems can be challenging. Not all open-source software will integrate seamlessly with your existing software or hardware, requiring custom workarounds or adjustments.

  • Security Concerns: As with any software, open-source digital signage solutions can have security vulnerabilities. While the openness of the code allows many eyes to spot potential issues, it also means potential attackers can study the code for exploits.
  • Feature Limitations: Some solutions may not have all the features of their proprietary counterparts, or these features may not be as polished or user-friendly.
  • Scalability: While open-source software can be very scalable, it often requires more work to scale up compared to proprietary solutions. You may have to manage your own servers and infrastructure, which can be a complex task as your digital signage network grows.
  • Consistency and Reliability: Depending on the software, there may be issues with reliability or consistency. Some open-source projects are not as rigorously tested as their proprietary counterparts, which can lead to unexpected bugs or crashes.

These challenges don't mean that open-source digital signage isn't a good choice, but they are important factors to consider. Open-source solutions typically provide a great deal of flexibility and customization potential, but they also require a larger investment of time and resources to manage and maintain.

At the end of the day, the biggest advantage is the freedom, that you can take hand on it and solve problems by yourself. This is definitely not possible with a close proprietary solution.

Conclusion

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.


Gravatar Nikolaos Sagiadinos
Author: Niko Sagiadinos
Developer & Co-Founder SmilControl – Digital Signage
Visit me on: LinkedIn or GitHub

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