Android Early Adopter BroadSign Puts New Low-Cost Player On Wintel

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BroadSign has probably seen the most success of any digital signage software company that has released players and product based around the Android operating system and ARM chips, so it will probably surprise some observers that its new product release goes back to Windows and Intel.

The BroadSign Xpress Pro, to be released Q3 of this year, is based on a quad-core Intel processor and Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Pro. It is roughly twice as powerful as the $99 BroadSign Xpress Android box, but half the size.

BroadSign has sold 12,000 units since it went Android two years ago. This new box is aimed at more complex use cases and will cost $229.

I correspond quite a bit with Bryan Mongeau, Vice President of Technology at BroadSign, and have known he’s been steadily trying to look around the corners at what’s coming in terms of chipsets and software. So having been given a heads-up on this new release, and intrigued by how Intel has come back, so to speak, in digital signage, I lobbed some questions at him about the thinking behind going Intel despite all the success with ARM.

Is Xpress Pro a better, faster update on the little Android box you’ve been selling for the last couple of years?

BroadSign Xpress Pro indeed offers twice the CPU cores, twice the RAM and twice the storage compared to BroadSign Xpress, but we do not see BroadSign Xpress Pro as an “upgraded version” of BroadSign Xpress. We view it as an alternative solution that responds to the requirements of more complex deployments.

Why go back to an x86 platform when you’ve got a market leader position on the ARM and Android side?

We can’t “go back” if we never left! We’ve always supported and will continue to support x86 Windows and Linux. When we began developing our hardware strategy in 2012, ARM/Android was the only means of hitting disruptive price points while maintaining enough functionality to support BroadSign’s smart player software. In 2014, however, Intel became competitive with ARM SoC’s in terms of price and performance.

What are the core attributes about this new player – like speed, graphics capability and so on?

The design process for BroadSign Xpress Pro began by analyzing use cases and identifying a feature set “sweet spot”. It has a quad-core Intel Bay Trail CPU up to 1.83 Ghz, 2 GB RAM and 32 GB eMMC storage, 2 x USB 2.0, 1 x RS-232, 10/100 Ethernet and Dual-Band WiFi a/b/g/n with detachable antenna. It comes with Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Pro and a commercially licensed Flash 16 runtime. It has hardware accelerated video decode at up to 1080p resolution.

Does this mean the Android platform is no longer a priority or are the products on a parallel development path?

We have concluded that there is market demand for both platforms. BroadSign Xpress will continue in parallel to BroadSign Xpress Pro.

What would be the argument for choosing one over another?

It boils down to the amount of flexibility and power you need. The low-cost Android+ARM design of BroadSign Xpress is well-suited to conventional digital signage deployments while the Windows+Intel BroadSign Xpress Pro is a better fit for sophisticated use cases.

You are a big believer in all-in-one displays, but not so much in the proprietary system on chip displays that the Korean display manufacturers have put out. Is that still something you are looking for, or are the prices and form factors of these kinds of players at a point where built-in doesn’t really matter?

BroadSign’s core philosophy revolves around delivering intelligence at the player level with just-in-time playback decision-making. The proprietary all-in-one systems I have evaluated boil down to a static playlist API. Although we have interfaced with many such systems, this old-school approach is not in line with our vision of the future. This is circa 2005 digital signage thinking.

My hope is that display manufacturers will realize they are in the display business, as opposed to developing proprietary signage systems. The first to market with a truly open all-in-one system, regardless of platform, will move many units.

Do you see Android in digital signage getting less attention and activity with a competitively priced and spec’d Intel/Windows option now out there?

Time will tell, Dave. I know that Android will remain a big part of our product portfolio and our industry. I’d say that Android’s rise in digital signage is directly tied to the arrival of the low-cost Chinese ARM SoC’s. Now that Intel has caught up with Bay Trail and Cherry Trail SoC’s, there will be a healthy mix of low-cost Android, Windows and Linux smart players out there.

How will it be sold and at what price points?

BroadSign Xpress Pro will be listed at $229, while BroadSign Xpress will continue to sell at $99. The smart players are sold directly to our customers in volume.

As with the release of BroadSign Xpress, BroadSign will conduct a beta program that invites customers (BroadSign Trailblazers) to test the first round of BroadSign Xpress Pro smart players. The anticipated delivery date of BroadSign Xpress Pro falls in Q3 2015.

What motivated going with Windows Embedded versus Linux or Android?

We studied our options here carefully. We wanted an OS that was truly professional grade. For the best out-of-the-box experience, we decided on Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Pro. It has a 10-year support life, the best driver ecosystem, and a modern Flash 16 runtime that is supported by Adobe (yes – that still matters). You simply can’t get all that with Linux or Android.

Will BroadSign offer a Linux version of BroadSign Xpress Pro?

Not at this time, but we are keeping our options open. Mainstream Linux support for this cutting edge hardware is not quite ready yet. There are a few issues that still need ironing out. I am convinced, however, that it’s just a matter of time before the major Linux distributions catch up. Our more sophisticated customers will likely explore this option independently and we will support them in their efforts.

Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes

Editor/Founder at Sixteen:Nine
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than a decade. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He's based near Toronto.
Dave Haynes

@sixteennine

Decade-old blog about digital signage and related tech, written by industry consultant and shit-disturber Dave Haynes.
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1 Comment

  • Ken Goldberg says:

    Bryan’s answer on the proprietary SoC displays just nails it in every way. Market results seem to indicate they aren’t fooling too many customers, either.

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