Software for Digital Signage: Native vs. Web Applications

If you’re shopping for software for digital signage, there are lots of options. One of the most basic questions you’ll have to ask yourself is whether you want a native application or web-based tools. The operational tasks most affected by the user interface (UI) occur during the content creation and management processes. The user experience could be shaped significantly by the UI selection and there are pros and cons to each offering.

When asked about the digital signage market, Melissa Webster, an analyst with independent research firm IDC, was quoted as saying “There are more than 150 vendors who make software and media players, and most are under $10 million in revenue.” A number of industry observers believe that there are more than 300 firms developing hardware and software for the digital signage market.

The popular digital signage website takes the estimates a step further by documenting 92 Windows-based native applications, 55 web-based applications, 6 Linux and 3 Macintosh based products. Assuming the information is accurate, of the 156 documented vendors, 58% are delivering native solutions while 35% are providing web-based solutions. In the digital signage world, which is better?

If you expect to create content using the digital signage software you select, you will find more powerful creation tools in native applications. A lot of the functionality you find in applications like Photoshop can be easily integrated into native applications. For a number of technical reasons, it is much more difficult to embed complex design tools in a browser.

Web browsers began as document viewers. Over time, different technical adaptations have been applied to browsers to enable them to host functionality that emulates native applications. Technologies like browser plug-ins and smart clients that were once popular are now frowned upon by most IT departments because of tightening security standards. Technologies that rely on scripting and ever-growing browser object models, like AJAX, are pushing the boundaries of what browsers can do, but these technologies cannot yet effectively emulate smooth drag-and-drop and drawing functionality. Silverlight is a browser plug-in allowed by most IT departments that might someday bridge the gap between web and native user experiences.

The downside of relying on a native digital signage application as a content creation platform is that it is proprietary and the pool of people familiar with the application is probably very small. Utilizing popular content creation applications like Photoshop and PowerPoint provides you with more flexibility and a larger pool of experienced users. Virtually all of the native applications will allow you to import content from third party applications, but you should consider the expense of the propriety platform if you do not intend to use it for creation.

Consider the total cost of ownership when evaluating the two interfaces. With most traditional software licenses, users pay a licensing fee for each machine running the application. A majority of the web-based solutions do not charge for the number of users accessing the application, but charge a one-time fee for the application itself. The SaaS or ASP models are completely different and may require unique users to pay a fee to access the application. If you intend to have only one or two people creating or managing content, then consider a native application. If you expect a larger number of people to contribute to the content creation process, you should evaluate web-based solutions.

There are no real differences between web and native interfaces when it comes to content management. Calendars, tickers, data sources, playback tracking and the manipulation of these elements can be easily managed through either interface. Through a browser, however, users can manage content from anywhere via the web. Accessibility, particularly in the event of an emergency, gives the web-based UI a significant advantage.

Regardless of your UI selection, the solution you choose should accommodate the most common functional requirements. At a minimum, the product should support data feeds (RSS, XML, FTP and others), popular file formats (MP4, MPEG, JPG and others), remote diagnostics, scalability (N-tier), user and role administration, layout management and content purge services.

Before evaluating native or web-based solutions, you need to define what you expect to accomplish with the technology. The goals of corporate and campus communicators are much different than those of retailers, hospitals or public venues. Once you have the objectives clearly defined, you have to create content that allows you to measure the effectiveness of your message or campaign. In short, be prepared to create with measurement in mind.