Niko Sagiadinos Of SMILControl On Why And How SMIL Fits In Digital Signage

December 1, 2021 by Dave Haynes

Going back roughly a decade, there were a couple of digital signage vendors talking up and marketing their capabilities for a technology called SMIL. That’s short for Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, but you probably knew that. OK, probably not.

It’s a bit like HTML, in that it is a programming language developed and supported by the same global entity that developed and continues to support and evolve HTML. If you don’t know what HTML is, then this podcast edition is one you may want to pass on. It gets a little nerdy.

SMIL, going back 10 years, was being touted as a next big thing for signage, but that didn’t happen. However, there are companies using SMIL for managing digital signage networks – particularly companies who have some technical chops in-house and want something that’s flexible and in their control.

I stumbled recently on a little company in Hannover, Germany that has been squarely focused on SMIL. I had a good, albeit technical, chat with Niko Sagiadinos, one of the two partners in a firm called SmilControl. He walked me through what SMIL is all about, and the advantages he says the technology brings to digital signage.

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Niko, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what your company is all about and when it got started? 

Niko Sagiadinos: We started in 2011 with a content management system based on SMIL, and I was a developer years before and one day a friend of mine came up with the idea of 101 Signboard and told me that he desperately needs a content management system. So I had at that moment a content management system and I developed two models for this system, one to administer the playlist and one to administer the player, and so it began. I liked SMIL and the open nature of ideas at that time. I often used open source software and that’s a concept I personally liked very much and so I stuck with SMIL and I saw that there were a lot of things possible with SMIL, and I liked it and I stayed with it. 

So there will be people listening who will already be going, what is he talking about?

What is SMIL? Over here, it’s sometimes called “smile.” I know it’s an acronym for some sort of a language. Can you explain? 

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes. SMIL is an acronym for synchronized multimedia integration language. You can also call it the HTML for digital signage or multimedia presentations and SMIL makes it possible to create a multimedia presentation, interaction with time synchronization. That’s where the first word synchronized comes from, and just like you can build websites with HTML, you can build presentations or digital signage presentations with SMIL. 

So I know that SMIL has been around for several years. I can remember a competitor of yours, SignageLive, talking about SMIL and working with ideas over in Taiwan, on their devices as well. They made a fair amount of noise about it, and then it just dropped off, and Jason and his team moved on to other stuff seemingly. What’s the distinction between SMIL and HTML5? 

Niko Sagiadinos: SMIL is focused on presentations and the arrangement of media, while HTML is more focused on the arrangement of information and the implementation for the media, but SMIL can synchronize them. So you can position a media to play first, then second, then the third, then repeat, go to one and then continue. These are things which are not natively possible with HTML. You can do it with HTML, but you need to program with JavaScript, and that’s easier to do with SMIL.

SMIL also has some orders to control how a presentation runs and the presentation is not the thing for HTML. With websites, you can do interactions with the website but you cannot synchronize media sequentially, parallelly, or what happens when a special time comes, for example, at 5 o’clock, a video has to run an, and then another playlist starts. There are a lot more complicated things focused on presentation which are better solved by SMIL.

So why has the digital signage industry migrated more to HTML5 and those kinds of web services and JavaScript as opposed to SMIL? 

Niko Sagiadinos: Now I have two theories. The first is it is easier for most to make a web design and it seems to be easier to make its own thing. This is one, it seems to be easier to make a website, but it has some disadvantages because it’s a browser, you need a digital signage player. You can integrate a browser in a digital signage player, but you also need commands to administer this player and this is with the browser a little bit more complicated. 

The second thing is that every company wants to do his own thing. So you need to buy a software from company X and you need to buy a digital signage player software or hardware from company X, and this is what we call a window lock in. Every company wants to lock in their customers to use their product and so they have established this connection between an authoring system and the player system, and with SMIL, this connection can break up so you can use any player from any company or even my open source player, and you can write your own SMIL authoring software, if you like, and that’s something companies don’t want. They want to have it all together and sell a solution, and that’s the reason, in my opinion, they stuck more on this product. 

In the early days, they tried to establish SMIL as low-cost signage also, but it was a mistake from my point of view, because SMIL can do much more than what they were focused on. They focused on the media player only and said, okay, this is only low cost signage, but you can run a SMIL software even under a mobile and computer, and this is a way to do more high cost signage for example, and there’s another reason. Companies don’t want to cannibalize their own product. For example, if you get a market leader and they have their own system, and now you come to SMIL, and they have a feature that has low cost signage, because if they said, okay, they can do the same things like our enterprise product with SMIL, they’ll lose money. 

So your company is SMIL Control. What do you offer? I know that recently you introduced a free software player as well that works with SMIL. 

Niko Sagiadinos: We started in 2012 officially with only a content management system and most of our customers used players from IAdea but some of our customers wanted to create their own player. They were not satisfied with the player from IAdea for various reasons, because there was no company, they wanted to have more control, maybe they got some cheaper devices from Asian manufacturers and so they started to write their own SMIL software and that caused some problems.

When three or four of our resellers started to write software, and put a lot of resources to develop this player, but they didn’t focus on marketing and to make sales, and just focused on developing and in 2015-16, I decided, okay, we have now some success with our content management system, I tried to develop a player for those who want to create their own hardware. And the only target for me is to create an open source player, and this player is the Garlic Player, and now after five years, increasing companies are showing interest in this player to brand it under their name or to use it in their player and to make their own hardware around this player. That’s the goal.

To be clear, this is the software that plays out the media and there’s a hardware player, which is not what we’re talking about here? 

Niko Sagiadinos: At SMIL Control, our focus is only on software. You can take our software and use it as you want and this is the same with the  . The Garlic Player is a piece of software that you can use on a Windows PC, on a Linux PC or an Android device. You can even name it on Android as X Player, and you can sell it at X Player by making a service out of this, and that’s the goal.

You can use our software, and the only consistent way to publish the software is to open source the player software so everybody can take part of it. 

I apologize, I’m not overly technical. I’m probably more technical than a lot of people, but I have my limits, sometimes severe. 

You were describing how IAdea, a great little company from Taiwan. I’m good friends with them, they had a SMIL based hardware player, and I think you mentioned that there are some other companies that also have SMIL based hardware players, but you’re saying, your garlic player doesn’t need to be on one of those devices, it could run on a Windows or Linux box, or even on an Android box and I think I read that it doesn’t even need to be rooted, right? 

Niko Sagiadinos: You can use this on an Android together with a launcher, and the launcher is another software which works together with the player and the launcher does not need the device to be rooted.

I know this is a little tech focused discussion, but yes, at the end of the day, there’s only software running on hardware. Even with IAdea and the other players, there’s just software which is running on the hardware, and the goal is that if someone wants to offer his own hardware, they can use our software. 

So if I’m an end-user or a solutions provider, I’m listening to this and getting the explanations around the advantages of SMIL over HTML5 and so on. I’m wondering if they’re listening and thinking, “This sounds interesting, but I don’t know anything about that particular programming language and how much of a curve do I have to get up,” or is if I’m an end-user, is it invisible and you don’t need to know anything about it? 

Niko Sagiadinos: This is a valid point. Our products are not for end users. They are for resellers who have a technical background and know what they have to do. For example, there are a lot of companies in Germany who want to offer digital signage products and have tech support, but they don’t have knowledge in digital signage and have possibly two opportunities. 

The first opportunity is to build everything from scratch by themselves, or to get someone who sells them a complete package, a full service but if you are between that, you will have your own hardware maybe, and you want to use your own hardware, but you don’t have the software for it. You have knowledge of hardware and PC, but you don’t have the software and you need software. That’s our customer. 

The end users will be totally overwhelmed because they will run into problems because of the technical nature because you have to know a lot of things, but a company which has a technical background, like a solutions provider for PCs or someone else that has this technical background, and so they can work together. 

And would there be a lot that they need to learn or would it be pretty straightforward if they’re already working with web technologies?

Niko Sagiadinos: They won’t have much to learn because the software is from us, and the only thing they have to learn is how to control the software. Of course we can offer bandwidth with this. We can offer that you can take it and use it or maybe you can do more things. If you need your own CMS, and you want to use only the player, we can help you, and the two documentation for SMIL and everything is open so there is no need for NDAs and things like that and we’ll make the things to learn much easier, so you can learn, but you can only start to use it and install it. 

So you could be trained on it. It’s just like any other piece of software, you just might need some training? 

Niko Sagiadinos: Exactly. We are computer nerds and we can show them how to use this software,  how they can use these concepts.

So if this is for our solutions providers/resellers, that sort of thing, I gather something about what you’re saying is this gives them the ability to control it, maybe put their own front-end skin on it so it looks like their product, and as you say, you’re the nerds, you guys are just sitting in the background.

Niko Sagiadinos: It can be digital signage companies too, or companies who want to be digital signage companies, but they don’t want to reinvent the wheel and they get used in other industries. 

We are something intermediate. You can take a full service provider, that’s okay. But if you don’t want this full service provider and you don’t want to develop everything by yourself, you can use our products. So we are in the middle. 

Do you get pushback from companies who say, this sounds really interesting, but I don’t know much about this language. I know I asked this already, but this makes me a little nervous in that it’s unfamiliar to me. Why wouldn’t I just go with something with one of the established products out there that’s using more familiar technology? 

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes, of course, we get this feedback, but for me, it’s a matter of time. There are customers for this because we get requests and these requests started coming in even a year before I started marketing. The last few years we got some big customers and we didn’t even need to get out. So it was a secret. We had no real website and my partner and I know how to get customers and they have commissions for software, and so we started last year to make websites to do marketing.

And in this year, the requests began to increase from other companies, and we have started to work with companies in Eastern Europe, for example, who use the Garlic Player and even join the programming and the coding. 

To go back to your question, there are companies that say, okay, that’s too complicated for us. We want to use some other things. But our goal is to get these companies who want to do these complicated things, because they see more effort to do this, then using something from someone else, which they can’t control.

And it sounds like what you’re saying as well as it could be complicated to people who aren’t around programming, don’t do coding or anything like that, they are end-users or whatever it may be. If you are a technical company by nature and have software developers within your staffing, this is not complicated. It’s just another way of going at it? 

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes. For example, with a room booking software. If you want to have room booking software, you can develop your own room booking software and implement it transparently in our system via a widget which is a bit technical, but you are able to control and make use of what you have written with our infrastructure.

So you can use a software like a media player, for example, and say, okay I will run a playlist from 10 to 3 o’clock, and from 3 o’clock, this room booking software will run on this or any other kind of software, and that’s possible because we have these open technical features.

So is it a bit like the kind of emerging idea of headless CMSs?

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes, a little bit. You can compare it to a headless CMS a little bit. 

Because you’re the control platform and distribution platform, but somebody could write a front end and use their existing room booking tools or whatever and it’s going to flow through there?

Niko Sagiadinos: Exactly, and another thing to say is that we are at the beginning at the moment. We started to get open, to get published and to imagine the SMIL player, the garlic player which I have written in 2016, the first three years did not even get any interest, because we are a small company in Germany, but we try to make our infrastructure step by step and build a SMIL based ecosystem and this ecosystem will grow. 

At first, we had only the content management system. Now we have a player, a launcher, even the proxy, and this ecosystem grows and grows. The next step we have to do is to deliver more information on how to use SMIL?  There is a website from IAdea, but it hasn’t been maintained for over six and seven years and so we have to do something to teach people. That’s our goal. 

Not only we have to teach people how they can use these things for their businesses, and this is a way we have to go. At the moment, we can not give a solution for everything, but we are on a way and time by time we can offer more and more solutions, more and more information, and the product gets “round” so to say in German. 

I would imagine it’s important to stress that this is not some little side project on GitHub or whatever. SMIL is something that was developed by the world wide web consortium, they are the same people who came up with HTML, right?

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes, and it is used in industry. The HD-DVD started with SMIL, the MMS also uses SMIL, a new eBook standard also uses SMIL. That’s not something we developed with a few students. This is an industry standard. It’s no joke. It’s global and I’m wondering why IAdea ten years ago didn’t put more power to show the world that it’s possible to make amazing playlists, produce amazing products with this language, and accept it as low-cost signage and went with that if you want to do real signage, you have to get other products and that’s, for me, a reason why SMIL in the last 10 years did not get accepted.

And is this a standard that’s standing still or is it evolving just in the same way that HTML is evolving? 

Niko Sagiadinos: It’s now standing still, it’s not evolving at the moment. It’s stuck on SMIL 3.0, which is from 2008, but I’ve contacted the inventors of SMIL in the Netherlands, some professors and I contacted them because we need to evolve. There are some features that are missing in SMIL, and we tried to wake them up. 

The standard is okay, but since 2008, nothing has happened like HTML, but on the other side there are many things you can do. HTML evolves because a lot of things have to come in, for example, 50 years ago HTML was not able to play video without plug-ins and things changed a lot. Internet Explorer was a market leader for much too long and had blocked the evolution of HTML for years and now with other browsers, Firefox, Chrome and Safari, there’s much more moving in the web browser markets.

And we are trying the same thing for SMIL. At the moment, it fulfills our needs more than we expected. My partner at first was skeptical too. But when I developed more and more features into the Garlic Player, he was stunned seeing what is possible and what only expensive digital signage systems are able to do, we can do with SMIL. So there is no reason to call it low cost signage. 

Okay. What are the business arguments around working with SMIL versus an HTML5 based platform or some other developed platforms. Are they going to be more reliable? Is it gonna be less expensive? Is it gonna last longer?

Niko Sagiadinos: Well, you are asking a developer a business question. (Laughter)

You gotta sell it down the stream. 

Niko Sagiadinos: Selling is more my partner’s job, but I will try. The interesting thing is that HTML is okay for what it has to do. SMIL is another part and the web browser is not a digital signage player so as we say in German, we are comparing an apple with a pear and those are two different things. You can do digital signage with HTML, but you can even ride a bicycle to Tokyo. That’s possible too. 

I think SMIL is much more of a fit for the digital signage age than HTML. The business side is that with SMIL, you don’t have any dependencies and HTML won’t fulfill the needs of digital signage. 

Your company’s based in Hanover, Germany, and it’s privately held, I assume? You guys own it. You’re not owned by a larger company or a venture capital company?

Niko Sagiadinos: We are a bootstrapped company, we started as two people and now we are a kind of German limited, GmbH, because we want to expand next year. 

How many people work for SMIL Control?

Niko Sagiadinos: At the moment, we are two people. My business partner and I so yes, we are a little company, but we also use external developer, and last time I started to work with Bulgarian developers and Greek developers, and because I’m a digital nomad, I’m commuting between Germany and Greece, because I like the weather in Greece much more and the food.

You don’t like Hanover or Northern Germany in February?

Niko Sagiadinos: No, it’s extremely cold and to be honest, November and December are the ugliest months because in Germany, everything is gray here and cold and Greece is so much better. 

If somebody wants to find out more about your company, where would they find you online now that you have a website?

Niko Sagiadinos: Yes, we have a website, But the company name is Camel case.

All right, that was terrific. Thank you for spending some time with me and explaining what SMIL is all about. 

Niko Sagiadinos: Thank you for allowing me. I hope it was understandable. I know I was a little nervous and that’s complicated because I’m not a salesman or a businessman. We are technically focused and I’m very stuck on this technical thing and I have grown up in 30 years of technology. So maybe for one or the other, it was a little bit hard. Sorry! 

Oh, that’s okay. There’s lots of technical people who will be intrigued by this and want to know more, so I’m sure it’ll work out. Thanks again. 

Niko Sagiadinos: Thank you very much, Dave.

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