Software RFPs: Key questions to get answered
March 10, 2010 by Dave Haynes
Hundreds of different software providers offer the basics of a digital signage platform, so how does someone planning a network weed though them all and find the right one?
Start by getting some key questions answered.
The request for proposal process (RFP) lets you “check all the boxes” on basic functionality a network will need, and is a powerful tool for probing the true capabilities and underpinnings of vendors. Asking the right questions gets you past the marketing spin and allows you to see what an organization really offers, and how it can deliver.
Here are five key questions that should get raised and addressed when choosing a software partner:
1. What are the software development and quality assurance processes?
The size of the developer team and the processes used to deliver a product can speak volumes about that vendor’s real capabilities. The biggest development team doesn’t necessarily win, but a larger team represents more capacity, probably a broader range of skills, and genuine redundancy when things like vacations come around or people quit. Work still gets done. With very small teams, if a key guy is knocked off his feet by influenza, every customer knows it and feels it. The RFP process is a good tool to smoke out the real size and characteristics of the developer team.
Vendors should have well-defined development and software release processes, and a roadmap that lays out targets and dates. Roadmaps demonstrate where a service is going, and tells prospective buyers whether they’d be getting a product that is evolving with the marketplace, or locked down and not keeping up.
Buyers should probe how the vendor tests and releases software. Some firms regularly release and patch code to users, letting customers do the debugging. Others put new releases into weeks and months of rigorous testing before customers get near it. Ongoing releases provide new functionality more quickly, but there will be bugs. Full “QA” means new functionality may take a year or more to arrive, but when it gets there, there are few surprises.
2. What can you see and manage?
The front-end functions of screen layouts and scheduling are common across just about all digital signage software platforms. Where differences emerge is in the back-end, in how the software platform lets users monitor and fully manage deployed devices.
Those remote controls are essential to the integrity and uptime of networks, and for the total cost of ownership. The best platforms enable networks to see and control everything going on with deployed equipment without a network’s technical people leaving the operations center.
Site visits should be limited to planned maintenance or replacing failed or damaged equipment. A platform that provides limited remote management means the only way to solve problem is a costly site service call, which can quickly cripple operating budgets.
3. Is the system open or closed?
Media technology is rapidly converging, and as this sector matures and enters the mainstream, digital signage software platforms must allow external applications and devices to work with it.
You will want, for example, a vendor that has Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that make software platforms open to third-party development, or bridge different technologies.
You will also want a vendor that is helping shape and enshrine much-needed standards that are being developed by and for the industry. Members of the industry have been trying to herd the sector towards technical standards that enable the many different products and services out there – from pure software providers to ad-booking engines – to have at least basic interoperability.
Standards for such things as scheduling and audience measurement are absolutely critical to the advancement and acceptance of the industry, and vendors that work outside these emerging guidelines may impair of their clients to fully do business.
4. Is the system future-proofed?
The perfect solution, right now, could prove a bad choice two years out if the system design leaves a network operator stuck in the “now” – particularly with consumer and computing technology evolving and rapidly converging.
Almost all digital signage software platforms are built for and run on x86 personal computer platforms, but that’s changing. It’s already possible to buy, for about $100, a networked media device that plays HD video and can display custom news and social feeds. These solid-state units are all many simple networks may need, but they require lean, custom operating systems that would probably never run Windows.
Ask prospective vendors where their platforms are going and how they are embracing emerging technologies. Can they port the software to non-PCs now, or soon? Is the design extensible? Do they understand social media’s implications, mobile convergence, new display types, Adobe’s Open Screen, and things like using one platform to deliver media across everything from a lobby screen, to phones, to office desktops?
5. Will the platform be efficient for your current and long-term needs?
Efficiency and ease of use decisions for software should have more to do with how long it takes to complete tasks on a platform, once trained, than how long it took to “learn” the system. In choosing a platform, look for something that best addresses the time and money equation of staffing.
If all the work needed to manage a network of 100 sites means one full-time hire, does having 10 times as many sites mean 10 times as much work, and 10 hires? Staffing needs can’t grow at the same pace as network site counts, so a platform must make planning, scheduling and distribution as efficient as possible. Large networks with schedules that differ site by site need systems that use databases to make big scheduling and target jobs manageable.
One way to get a clear sense of just what’s involved is to ask a software vendor for a thorough demonstration of what all is involved in getting a piece of media into a system and getting it targeted to the right screens at the right time. How many clicks did that really take?
There many more key considerations for choosing the right vendor. This first set will help get someone planning a network much closer to the right choice.
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