Guest Post: John C. Wang, IAdea
Editor’s note: Sixteen:Nine is preparing a large report on the state of the Android signage market, and talking to industry leaders about what they’re up to and where they see things going. Instead of just notes, IAdea’s John Wang kindly wrote a full post on his POV. A full report is on the way, but here’s what one CEO has to say about the current state of Android in signage.
Every couple of years, a new wave of media player technology hits our industry to reshape the landscape. Since the age of the legacy, all-powerful “Wintel” PCs, we have witnessed the digital photo frames, SMIL, and HTML5. One of the latest change in player architecture can be attributed to Android-powered devices. Almost all digital signage software vendors attempted to support these low-cost media players one way or another. A few new companies also emerged during the shift.
If you go around asking people about their experience with Android players, you will almost certainly get mixed feelings. One company went from 100% Wintel exclusive, to now 60/40 Android/Wintel ,with Android running the majority of their installations. Yet some feel Android was more about hype than hope – disappointed that their investment in the new platform has yet brought them the return they had imagined.
Cheap Androids May Die Fast
True story: an integrator pursued a pilot deployment for a leading mobile operator, wishing to demonstrate the ROI of replacing printed “fact tags” with small screens. Next to every phone on display in the store, a small digital sign would show the technical details about the phone, as well as up-to-date service plan bundles, which can quickly change from month to month. The solution greatly improves the timeliness of the fact tags, so both the customers and store staff can learn about new programs quickly and accurately.
Naturally, the integrator went shopping for cheap Android devices to swap out the printed paper tags. Two months into the pilot, devices started to fail. Wireless network connection became intermittent, and one after another the units just quit working. Some can be recovered temporarily after power cycling, and some just refused to power up ever again.
Needless to say, everyone involved was devastated.
Post-mortem analysis showed that most failed devices were affected by eroding on-board flash memory. The Android file system was designed with a battery in mind, which allows the device to shutdown gracefully when power is cut. Running without a battery, as it is considered redundant for most digital signage deployments, means a sudden power loss can corrupt the file system, which holds critical system software needed for the device to work.
The open online Android issues tracker records a huge record of defects like this. But if an issue does not impact a million users, chances are it won’t be fixed by Google.
Making Android Last
Despite the apparent problems, some have found ways to re-engineer Android devices to work professionally on large scale. Earlier this year, IAdea and Intel jointly introduced the “Anbedded” middleware, a specialized version of Android designed for embedded industry applications.
The value proposition is similar to what Windows Embedded operating system offers:
- facility for robust, flash-friendly file management;
- gapless video playback and 4K (on supporting hardware);
- secure, locked-down devices access;
- remote app/firmware management;
- peripheral options for interactivity, live video input, light control, etc.;
- and longevity lifecycle support.
A project running Anbedded now drives over 10,000 displays at more than 5,000 locations. These hardened devices proved that with proper design, Android can be extremely reliable, even more robust than PC players. Reliability of these deployed devices are well above 99% annually in operation.
The Road Ahead
Recently, there’s been a lot of interest in Google’s ChromeOS as an alternative to Android for digital signage. Chrome and Android come from two competing divisions inside the search engine giant Google. While Android is designed for consumer-focused phones and tablets, Chrome targets the laptop and desktop, and has found some success, mostly in the educational market.
It’s hard to argue whether Chrome is any better than Android for digital signage, especially now with “Google for Work” – the paid services running atop Google’s free rides – pushing for enterprise-grade adoption for both Android and Chrome. However, since ChromeOS has a much smaller installed base compared to Android, one can expect the Chrome team to go after any market that has the possibility to help it stay relevant. It remains to be seen whether there will be enough dedicated effort in our industry by the Chrome team to make a dent.
Most likely, we will continue to see a lot more Android-based digital signage media players introduced than ChromeOS ones. Some of these may offer Anbedded to provide the robustness layer to mend Android’s weaknesses.
If these are not confusing enough, you may even consider embracing the free Microsoft Windows 10 “IoT Core” edition when it becomes available. All of these technologies will provide ever more options for digital signage integrators, and continue to challenge media player vendors who try to stay relevant.