Are iPads suitable for digital signage?

March 3, 2011 by Dave Haynes

Are iPads suitable for digital signage?

This is more an open question than something I can really answer here, but the all the discussion and attention stirred up by the iPad 2’s release got me thinking. I’d love to hear from people who have taken a crack at using the tablets – or iPad’s increasing number of rivals – for digital signage applications.

When the gadgets were announced roughly a year ago, I thought and wrote that they had the price and form factor to make them great merchandising displays. A year on, with the v2 units now having dual core CPUs and front-facing cameras they are even more interesting, plus the original that everyone wanted (until midday yeseterday) just went on sale for $100 off.

But there’s a couple of big caveats.

App development has to be done to Apple’s guidelines and go through its approval process. Your company or outsourced developer team is working only with the assumption, but not the assurance, that the app will be approved and made available in the app store.

I do know one company –  sedna of Berlin, Germany – has developed and released an iPad app for playing out playlists, based on hitting the central sedna application. I know a few other companies, like NanoNation, have also done some development.

So the development path is certainly there, but sedna is very much an Apple-based company. If you’re like most developers in this space, the focus has been entirely on Windows or Linux. From what I have read, a good iPad app that doesn’t hog resources is not that easily done, and takes developer experience that comes at a premium.

I’m curious how much these apps can report back from the network edge. In other words, if they’re down, will you know? How much of the other services can be disabled? Is a really smart device like an iPad a good thing when you just want it to do something simple, over and over?

The other question is durability. Companies like Premier have developed mounts that protect iPads from the prying fingers of the public, but the devices are still intended for the loving embrace of owners and not the 14-hour a day pounding of shoppers and people passing through other public spaces.

Does the Apple warranty still apply with business usage like this?

I wonder, for example, how this is doing at LaGuardia. Picture from MacLife, as spotted by Trefor Brock from DC Media

The iPad and iPad 2 price points are leaps and bounds ahead of what it cost, for a long time, for a small shelf-edge display and player combo, particularly for something that had touch and even a fraction of the iPad’s capabilities. But once these units are truly protected physically and the money spent to develop and get approval on an app, I wonder if iPads really are still a good idea.

Until netbooks and then tablets came along, 10-inches was a screwball LCD panel size that had limited manufacturing runs and therefore cost more than much larger panels. That’s obviously changed. We’re now starting to see smartphone CPUs with a combination of price and power that could easily drive a larger display. And with the growth of the Android marketplace, and therefore a lot of open source apps and code, I wonder if that’s more indicative of where the digital merchandising business will go.

With an iPad (they’re great, we have two in the house) they need to be bought as they are and then bolted down and protected against damage and theft. With a custom panel, embedded board and software, and something like Gorilla Glass, a unit can be built to last and do exactly as the client needs. And in volume, probably for less than $400.

Any stories out there about using iPads in retail and other public spaces, and developing digital signage apps for it?


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