The Digital Signage Insider

Thinking of Writing Your Own Digital Signage Software? Read This

Published on: 2010-03-31

During the past few weeks, I've run into not one, not two, but three companies who are considering writing their own digital signage software. From scratch. We noted this phenomenon several years ago, when investigating the make-vs-buy question for kiosks and digital signage networks. Frankly, I'm baffled that people are still thinking about writing their own platform here in 2010, given all the mature and affordable software packages that are available today. Without turning this article into a sales pitch, I'd like to talk about some of the arguments that I've heard from the do-it-yourselfers and hopefully set straight some of the widely-held misconceptions about what really goes into creating a digital signage software platform -- or any piece of software, for that matter.

Better, faster, cheaper. Pick... none?

I don't want to write an article about why you should buy my company's software -- or anyone else's, for that matter. Nor would I ever discount the quality or capability of open source and community-authored software. I use many such programs every day of the week, and they usually rival or top their commercial counterparts. But of the three companies I encountered who were contemplating the make-versus-buy, none are software companies, and two aren't even tech companies of any kind. One has a significant amount of digital signage experience. Another has a more modest track record in the industry. And one is still cutting its teeth on a prototype network. In all three cases, WireSpring's kit is being considered alongside a number of our competitors -- mostly good ones, with a few lackeys thrown in. (Even with over 330 companies in our competitor database, we come across one or two new guys each month.) In each case, cost is being cited as the chief factor in prompting the make-buy decision. In general, the cost-related arguments fall into two categories:


Image credit: Andrew Michaels
Fallacy #1: We can write it ourselves for less than the cost of [X software licenses / Y months of SaaS service / Z firstborn children]

Software companies are businesses, so yes, we do make a point of trying to sell our products to others for money. And while some firms seem adept at gouging customers with sky-high prices, most of us either start out honest, or else we're kept honest by our competitors. Still, there's apparently a notion out there that software development involves no capital expense and has no ongoing support costs. The reality (from my point of view, at least) is that good software developers are expensive. I hate to objectify them like that, because they can be pretty awesome people, too. But awesomeness doesn't show up on my P&L statements. Salaries do. For the cost of even an extremely modest, hypothetical development team -- perhaps 2-3 developers and a QA engineer -- you can buy a lot of software. And that doesn't even figure in tech support or take into account how long it would take said developers and QA folks to build a product that was actually usable.

Another big misconception -- and I can totally appreciate why anybody who hasn't worked at a software company would think this -- is that once you've written and released your perfect software version 1.0, you can fire your development staff, kick up your heels, and be done with it. I really, really wish that was the case. (Well, except for the firing part -- see the aforementioned note about awesomeness.) But a software program is never really "finished," and even great software demands a considerable amount of expensive, ongoing maintenance. What drives this need for maintenance? Here are a few of the gremlins that are bound to pop up:  
  • Discontinued hardware: The playback hardware you install at your sites (whether it's a PC or an embedded device) will eventually be discontinued and replaced with a new model, forcing you to update the operating system, integrate new drivers and re-test hundreds of scenarios before you can deploy on the new hardware.

  • Security patches: Mandatory security patches for the underlying operating system (whether it's Windows, Mac OS or Linux) or the other programs you use on there will interfere with your existing playback tools, forcing you to re-write those tools to be compatible. Internet Explorer has been notorious for this, with even a small change in the IE security model requiring major changes to digital signage playback tools that rely on IE for showing any type of web-based content.

  • New content formats: Your customers will eventually want to display new content formats that didn't exist when you first wrote your playback software, requiring you to integrate new codecs or upgrade the existing ones.

  • Browser updates: The web browsers that your employees or customers use to access your management portal (whether it's hosted in-house or out on the cloud) will be updated to new versions, forcing you to update your HTML, Javascript, and other code to be compatible with the new browser releases.

  • Bug fixes: No matter how much you test before releasing a software product, some number of bugs will crop up once it's in the field -- and it can sometimes take years before a given bug shows up. Like it or not, you'll probably be issuing bug fixes for the life of your product.
These scenarios may be specific to the digital signage industry, but the same general issues apply to all software development projects. In fact, companies like Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and Symantec are all constantly updating their legacy products, keeping a veritable army of developers and quality assurance staff employed in the process. But they have millions of clients over which they can spread their costs. When you write your own software, your first, biggest and only client is you. You get to pay 100% of the cost of every new feature and every bug fix. And instead of having a predictable, known cost for what you'll pay every year for keeping things up-to-date, writing your own software means that you bear the entire risk that those endeavors will be more expensive and time consuming than you expected.

Fallacy #2: We have elaborate, complex and unique requirements that need to be designed from scratch

If you really, really wanted a teal and fuchsia zebra-striped car, would you buy a car and get a custom paint job, or would you get an engineering degree and redesign the internal combustion engine? I have a slightly more diplomatic way of phrasing this when talking to potential customers. But what it boils down to is that when taking a from-scratch DIY software approach, you will be spending time and money solving problems that others have solved already. And I can tell you from experience that even seemingly simple tasks -- like reliably moving a file from server A to player B, or getting said file to play smoothly from beginning to end unattended -- turn out to be pretty complicated when they have to work in the real world, and not just in your development lab.

At the same time, I understand that all businesses have unique requirements, and some might have enough complexity to warrant writing software to automate (or at least improve) those processes. But in my book, that just calls for a good API and some engineering cleverness. I can't think of many real-world cases that would warrant a rewrite of what is basically the digital signage industry's equivalent of the wheel.

Perhaps you've done the math and considered salary expenses, time-to-market delays and opportunity costs, and you still think DIY software is a good idea. In that case, you're either planning an extremely huge network with remarkably unique needs, or you're underestimating some part of the DIY proposition. That sounds like a harsh conclusion drawn by a biased party, and maybe it is. But given how many do-it-yourselfers have become our clients and the clients of our competitors over the years, I've noticed a clear trend that goes like this: (1) Meet new prospect doing make-buy analysis. (2) Prospect chooses "make." (3) Wait 2-3 years. (4) Get new call from old prospect looking to retrofit old network. (5) Repeat. This cycle is costly for everyone and ultimately limits the growth of our industry, as otherwise promising network owners spend their time re-inventing the wheel, instead of expanding their networks and creating compelling content that achieves real business goals. Hopefully this article will help some of those people ask the right questions and understand the true costs of writing their own digital signage software, and enable them to make the best technology decision for their business. And if not... Well... I'll see you at step (4) then!


Comments   

0 Stephen Randall 2010-03-31 15:55
This post should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to enter the digital signage marketplace.
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0 Bill Gerba 2010-03-31 16:02
Thanks, Stephen. I'm sure this is a shared pain :) I just hate to think of the time and money being wasted re-solving solved problems. As if our industry didn't have enough pitfalls and caveats already! -Bill
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0 Lionel Tepper 2010-03-31 16:30
Excellent article! One of your very best to date.
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0 Rob Gorrie 2010-03-31 18:44
Of our 100 partners, many many use proprietary code. I will support the above that buy is better than build at this period in DOOHs maturation and comment that a time is coming in ad standardization and auditing that will require and demand either an accredited, audited system to be playing the ads/content or a vigorous audit of the proprietary system that will be taxing on internal, self-made dev teams and ops departments. The existing vendors will be on top of or involved in the ongoing standards/advertiser/retailer needs and will be ahead of the curve on this front. Standalone systems will not and you will constantly be playing catch up. Just my 2 cents RG
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0 Bill Gerba 2010-03-31 18:56
Lionel: Thanks! Rob: I understand that lots of people use **some** proprietary code. Stuff for integrating with other CMS or NMS packages, making and testing elaborate schedules, etc. will always involve more business rules than any DS software provider can cram into their generic offering. But there's a big difference in my mind between bolting something on to an existing playback platform like FireCast or Scala, and writing that playback platform from scratch. In the end it's untenable. Can you imagine if some network decided that they didn't like MPEG, so they were going to write and use only their own video codec?
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0 Pat Hellberg 2010-03-31 18:57
Wow. This is still happening? Don't stop at writing your own open-source DS software. Why don't you churn your own butter, sew your own clothes and conduct your own brain surgery? Think of the savings! Guess we have to dust off the Clint Eastwood quote that we used in a previous blog entry, "A man's got to know his limitations."
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0 Rob Gorrie 2010-03-31 20:01
Bill: When I say many of our networks are running proprietary code I mean built from the ground up full systems...not just pieces of. And yes, it is untenable to continue like this.
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0 Darren Coles 2010-03-31 23:51
We all look at the differant ways of doing things. Software development is an art and should be left to the experts. In our research for Digital Signage Software we tested everything, from Open Source that we could take the core and enhance to off the shelf commercial software. And the desicion was easy; for when we found a solution that had an extensive API set, which ment we could concertrate on the intergration and applications that clients are paying for and not worry about the stability of the core software. Bill I read your articles often, and this is one of the better ones.
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0 Lyle Bunn 2010-04-01 12:29
Totally agree Bill. "The biggest cost of an project is the mistakes". Starting with a stable media management platform of suitable functionality mitigates the risk. It also allows better cost and timeframe management.
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0 Stephen Ghigliotty 2010-04-01 16:06
Another great post Bill... I sat through a pitch about a year ago with some well funded developers who were looking for their first beta users and I couldn't help but think it was too late even then. Unless you need something quite custom, I cannot fathom a rational "write your own" software strategy in 2010. From my experience only a fraction of the capabilities are typically deployed by most digital signage network operators. We would all be better off if network operators focused on compliance, network performance and effective content delivery.
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0 Tim Burke 2010-04-01 22:09
Well Said. I saw that one of our competitors was writing their own code at a recent show. My friendly response to them was along the lines of OMG! Are you nuts? I heard someone at the DSA state that they estimate there to be over 300 DS management tools in the marketplace. That number feels high to me, but I'd say at least 100 - 150. Crazy to add more to the marketplace. We VAR several different software apps because we knew we didn't want to "go there". We have great offerings, each with their pros and cons and can recommend the best solution to clients based upon their needs. As it should be. Tim Burke - @KioskGuy See you all at the KioskCom & Digital Signage show in April 2010
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0 Bill Gerba 2010-04-02 03:46
Glad to hear I'm not the only one surprised by this, though the commenters here are pretty much the "usual suspects" of our industry. Tim: Per the 300 DS software guys number, we have an internal database of 330. It's been at about that number for nearly a year (between additions and deletions), so I think it's pretty accurate. And it doesn't include many products that haven't ever been marketed in English, so in fact the global number is probably somewhat higher. All that wasted and duplicated effort. Sigh.
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0 Lyle Bunn 2010-04-06 14:27
Additionally, the pace and directions of Digital Place-based Media have got to have everybody thinking beyond their own network. Assuring that future interconnectivity and interoperability are built into the software application is the challenge. Each media management software serves as part of an industry-wide platform and weak foundations make for a vulnerable industry and unconnected silos of networks.
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0 Tim Warrington 2010-04-08 13:59
I do think we need some new software developed, but all the digital signage software wanna bees keep building the same old software. The digital signage software need to get better, more dynamic, when i was in the show i new what the weather was like in every part of the world.
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0 manolo 2010-04-09 01:50
Bill - good post, and its easy to see that it was written from the perspective of a guy who's developed his own software. Admittedly, I too had my own proprietary solution in 2000, which I then migrated my client to Wirespring in late 2007. While I do agree with the points you raised, I don't agree that we should rally around to convince others from trying to build their own, true innovation comes from competition and people who think they can build the better mousetrap. I'd hate to imagine a world where someone convinced Bill Gerba not to make Firecast. Perhaps We'd all be on Scala right now :)
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0 Josua Hnger 2010-04-20 14:27
I enjoyed reading the article. There is so much truth in it! However, there is always the exception to the rule. 2 Years ago we decided to go the DIY way and we started to develop our own solution. We had a hard time until we got some of the base things like 100% fluid playback of full hd videos, no delays or black frames between adverts, mixing content of different types (e.g. crossfading videos with flash-webpages) etc. From beginning on, we hired true developer cracks, far beyond the average developers that just pass university. We don't regret it at all. Today we have a player that easily challenges each other player we know of in the whole industry of digital signage in terms of features, quality and price. Wherever we show it, we earn disbelieving looks. In fact we are so convinced and confident about our achievements that we changed the business model from being an integrator to being a partner and solution provider of integrators.
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0 Michael Marcus 2010-05-07 08:35
Great article Bill. With the diversity of product offering available (both in terms of price and features) there really is no good reason for users to start the slide down the slippery slope of "I'll make my own". As you so correctly point out, they'll find that they're so busy maintaining/ bug fixing the "simple" software, that their core business suffers. Basic business rule #1: Don't custom-make it if you can buy it off the shelf!
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0 Sergey 2010-07-01 22:07
Agree with the author that the development of software is not so easy and not so cheap as it may seem. For example SDB Complex - Software for Digital Signage and Indoor TV, design c 2002 to the present day. By the way not often someone to develop their own software, for example, the SDB Complex currently operates 46 companies.
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0 digital signage software 2010-08-18 13:43
Great advice. It has really helped me to produce my own digital signage software. Thanks.
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0 Stuart Armstrong 2010-09-19 19:39
Bill, Well said, appreciate your contributions to the industry and guidance to folks getting their business model and operational priorities straight. I agree with your comments and would add another one. Most start-up networks are short of capital and human resources. With a goal to build equity in their business for a lucrative exit, they need to remember they are a media company not a software company. With the potential of 5X revenues valuation on ad sales and MAYBE 1X revenues on assets such as software why spend anytime, and that value capital, on software development. Spend that money on securing great venues, delivering effective content and getting needed insertion orders.
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0 Adam Ridley 2011-04-02 05:51
Somewhat good advise but if a media company did want a major point of differance by having a unique feature and they kept the software simple only covering there exact needs, it could be a great advantage to them.
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0 Shakeel 2012-02-24 19:17
This article is 200% true and i have gone through it by myself. We developed the software from scratch and released but couldn't add new feature nor new updates or fix bugs due to cost and not able to get a investor to support our ongoing digital signage software development. We have stopped a new software development in a middle for a advanced digital menu on Tablet where everything is automated and reduce the requirement of more staffs. Regards SHAK
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0 Clinton Gallagher @virtualCableTV 2012-04-16 23:40
GONG The assertions put forth by Bill Gerba and the comments that follow are seriously flawed and cannot be taken seriously be somebody who knoww how to assess contemporary software. That would be because digital signage software per se is for the most part crippleware, is not fundamentally extensible, lacks support for both de facto and official standards, does not and cannot integrate with other software, does not support interoperability with services, claims to run "in the cloud" which is a farce in itself. The generalizations are what they are yet they are apt, correct and true for the most part. To suggest or conclude that nobody needs to develop digital signage software anymore is simply foolish or talk from those vendors who have something to fear and as I understand it there are more than 300 of them at the time Bill Gerba wrote this shortsighted fallacious article.
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0 Bill Gerba 2012-04-17 17:19
Hi Clinton, You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but in this case I think the data is pretty strongly against you. Otherwise it would be very hard to explain the large number of companies selling virtually identical offerings in our space, and the increasing rate at which they're going out of business (indeed while I don't have hard data, I'd be willing to bet that on the balance the overall longevity of digital signage software companies has declined in the past 3-4 years). Where you're right is in your talk about the need for an ecosystem, interoperability and the like. Thankfully, most of us do in fact use standards-based technologies, and most of us do offer extensive APIs and integration capabilities, so things aren't quite as dire as you make them out to be :) My original argument still holds though: while there is a lot of work to be done at the periphery adding new services and features, the core functionality of a digital signage platform is a solved problem. There is ZERO benefit to going out and "solving" it again all by yourself.
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0 larry 2013-12-05 22:18
"Otherwise it would be very hard to explain the large number of companies selling virtually identical offerings in our space, and the increasing rate at which they're going out of business (indeed while I don't have hard data, I'd be willing to bet that on the balance the overall longevity of digital signage software companies has declined in the past 3-4 years)." There continue to be a lot of players in this space because most charge outrageous prices for what should be commodity software. They all see what everyone else is asking and think, "If we charge just a little less we can make a lot of money." The increasing number going out of business just proves how wrong they are.
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