Free Digital Signage Software Isn’t Free

EPISODE 90 | Guest: Sean Matthews, president & CEO of Visix, Inc.

Lots of people advertise free digital signage software on the web. But is it free? Do these apps come with hidden costs, limited features or lackluster support? Most importantly, will the free software you’re considering adapt to your needs or force you to adapt to it?

In this episode, Sean Matthews walks us through what to watch out for when considering a free CMS to manage your digital signs, what types of environments should and shouldn’t use them, and how to frame your software search to match your strategy.

  • Hear the difference between free software, freeware and open source
  • Walk through the pros and cons of free signage software
  • Find out what “free” might mean (trial, demo, pilot, hosting, etc.)
  • Consider how services, updates and security are affected
  • Learn the questions to ask before downloading a free signage app

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 1: Digital Signage Systems Overview


Derek DeWitt: Everybody loves free stuff. Google really loves free stuff. That’s why, when you Google some kind of software you want, be it a video player or a website platform or even a digital signage app, you’ll see a lot of quote free software in the page one results. But is free digital signage software really free? Today we’ll talk about this with Sean Matthews, president and CEO of Visix, to try and understand the pros and cons of free software and whether or not it’s right for listeners who might be shopping around. Hi, Sean, how are you today?

Sean Matthews: I’m great, Derek! I appreciate you having me on the show, the podcast.

Derek DeWitt: I’d like to thank Sean for talking to me today and everybody out there for listening. Of course, remember that you can subscribe to this podcast, and you can follow along with a full transcript complete with links on the Visix website. Go to Visix | Resources | Podcasts.

Okay. So free software. What are we talking about when we’re talking about free software? Are we talking about freeware? Are we talking about shareware? What are we talking about with these companies that offer this?

Sean Matthews: You know, I think this is what most digital signage users are actually looking for when you go out and Google free digital signage software. They’re looking to download an app without paying for it and magically put content up on screens. You know, it has some sort of EULA associated with it and you either agree to those terms or you don’t. You know, all kinds of collaborative associations and foundations that define what free software is. And you can maybe manipulate it, you can share it, you can do some things to it. Which is, you know, certainly a good deal different than like open source free, right.

You know, and the whole open source thing I, you know, I feel like has been tied back to the Linux days. You know, Mozilla, WordPress, those kinds of things where, you know, it’s truly open source, it’s free software, but you know, people can add to it. They can add features. It can be codified and then shared with others. And there’s usually some sort of managerial group that exists out on the web that’s actually managing those feature sets, comments on it and, you know, bundles it up so it can be passed along to others.

So, I think really, in short, when you get down to it, people are going out on the web and looking for free digital signage software. And they just want to download some freeware that they can use to put stuff up on screens.

Derek DeWitt: Right. They’re not uh, because like you said, there’s a, there’s a whole sort of ecosystem out there of this stuff. I read once that all open source software is freeware, but not all freeware is open source. People aren’t really usually looking to go in and change the code of the CMS or whatever the software is that allows you to schedule and maybe even create content. They’re just looking for something that they can use, like Microsoft Word or, you know, something like that.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, our experience with open source digital signage software, the only time we’ve actually ever seen it really used might be at some sort of institute of higher learning, which is like an engineering school, like an MIT or a Georgia Tech or something like that, where, you know, there’s an engineering effort to go customize some sort of existing open source platform to add feature sets to it that are almost specific to that institution. And that’s honestly, that’s the only time that I’ve ever seen that sort of open source digital signage CMS used for real, you know, in an institutional environment.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And just so people listening out there, you probably already know if you’re, if you’ve been following along this podcast for, through all the many, many episodes we’ve had. But if you’re new to all this, you might need to know that when we’re talking about digital signage software, we’re really just talking about a CMS or content management system. That is the core software suite that allows you to put stuff up there. So of course, the question would be, hey, look, I’ve got, I don’t know, a restaurant, or I’ve got a gas station, or I’ve got a pizza parlor, or I’ve got even an office. If I can get a CMS for free, well, why the hell shouldn’t I?

Sean Matthews: I mean, it’s a great question, Derek. And the examples that you just cited, you know, if I have my own independent gas station or independent restaurant, a free CMS actually might work for you. Just being brutally honest. But at any sort of enterprise scale, truly, let’s say at the institutional communication level or a multi-store retail operation, you know, your ability to import, schedule and deliver content to various endpoints at different points in time and be specific in terms of what type of content gets where, I don’t think that there’s any sort of true free product that’s out there.

And I think that the term free is, is pretty loose. I mean, it could mean a limited free trial that might expire at some point, you know, beyond your control. It could be a version of some sort of commercial product that has very limited features, which again, might work for your independent gas station. And often you can only get free software if you buy their hardware or you agree to some sort of file storage limits, or you agree that only one login or one user account can be created.

So, you know, when I look at this stuff online, there’s a lot of bait and switch stuff. And I just feel like that when you look at what’s out there for free, most companies that are in our industry are using that as a Google term or phrase so that they pop up higher in the organic response.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And as always, you know, buyer beware. You gotta read that fine print because, free for a certain value of free.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, and if you think about companies like Visix and, you know, we have competitors in our same category, you know, we charge for our product. We charge for our software. We charge for our hardware and our professional services. Because, I mean, we have spent decades, not only building the source code, but documenting how to use it. There are learning resource materials. There are people on our staff that are professional services people that we pay for to help support our clients.

I mean, it’s like any other business system that you might employ in your organization, whether it be an ERP, salesforce automation, a telephone system, if you wanna look at it that way, or a communication system like Teams or Slack or any of those things. They’re not free because they have to be fully supported in an institutional environment.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And of course, there are other, other things to consider: improvements to the user interface, new features, obviously constant bug fixes, online security issues. All these sorts of things have to be kept in mind. I mean, yeah, it kinda seems to me like, yes, I suppose office A could use just Microsoft Excel and a calculator. And that could be enough. Though, I don’t think that’s gonna work for a larger scale company. They’re gonna need a much more comprehensive like accounting software system.

Sean Matthews: Yep. That’s correct. And I think that when you look at what you’re giving up when you go get something that’s free, you know, you’re giving up your own personal data and information, I mean. And in most cases, you’re gonna get, you know, pinged with email. You might fill out a bunch of forms with contact information that gets sold at some point. Again, nothing is free and you’re going to give up something.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. That’s, that’s true. Yeah. Because yeah, the company who’s offering quote unquote free software, they’re making money somehow and it could very well be that they’re just, they’re just selling your data.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, the reality is there is no such thing as a nonprofit digital signage software development firm. At least I’ve not found one.

Derek DeWitt: Digital signage is not one of the NGOs out there on the list.

Sean Matthews: That’s correct. If you find one, please let me know. And I, I might support ’em.

Derek DeWitt: Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of free digital signage software. Let’s kind of drill down into some of the specifics. Like what are some advantages? Obviously the first advantage is that, at least initially, I’m not paying anything.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, and if you’re just looking to save money, I mean, that might be the way to go. I mean, you might actually just want something that’s very simple for your single-store restaurant, your single-store gas station, you know, as we mentioned earlier. You know, and if you just have one screen that you’re trying to put something up on, you might be able to upload some templates or whatever, and just get something up on screen.

You know, the question I would ask you is why are you doing that, right? I mean, is there some sort of, you know, sales advantage? Is there a point of sale transaction that’s gonna occur because you have this electronic sign? And I’m just not convinced that just because other gas stations have electronic signs that you might need to have one. Because what they’re doing at those franchised, you know, chain gas stations is they have professional content creators that are creating elaborate, buy one, get one videos that are spinning on screen and actually might cause someone to buy, you know, an extra slurpy or whatever, right.

And, you know, if you just have this small deployment, you might be better off just uploading slides to PowerPoint and having those play on screen versus even trying this free CMS. I’m just not sure what the value of that CMS is for this little single screen deployment.

Derek DeWitt: That scenario, where you’ve got, you know, a laptop with a cable going into a flat screen TV. That’s my digital signage system. It’s, I mean, it’s not automated, there’s no way to schedule things. Like you gotta, you gotta just, you need to make a change, you need to go in there and make it. Your digital signage is down while you’re doing that. I mean, it might in the long run end up being a headache.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, and if you think about what digital signage really is, and if we talk about the sort of, the negatives of the freeware sort of thing, maybe some of the limitations to this freeware offering, you have to understand what a digital signage system really is and what it takes to make it work. You know, it’s not just a TV and some sort of app on your laptop, right?

You have a content creation tool. You have a content management tool, which allows you to schedule when and where it’s gonna play and causes the content to remove itself from the schedule when it’s expired. Then you have a media player, which is a piece of hardware and software associated with it. And then you have the display itself. So, you know, there are lots of components to this. It is a system. It is not a single app that you would just use on a tablet or a phone, or even on a laptop. So, if you wanna schedule messages to a display, you actually have to have a content management system. Because if you create something in PowerPoint, PowerPoint does not have any scheduling tools associated with it. It just plays a constant loop in basically like a kiosk mode.

So, you know, that’s where digital signage comes into play. You have to have at least two apps, which is a scheduling app and then a playback app. In fact, you might need three apps if you want to create, you know, complex or elegant looking layouts on screen. So, it’s just like, you know, you need VLC or some other decoder to watch videos on your laptop or whatever. You need something that plays content on a screen. You need a media player. So, you know, man, even if you find, you know, some sort of, you know, free software, you download it, you create a bunch of other stuff. You’re going to have to have different things in between that content and the display itself.

You have to decide who’s gonna create the content, who’s gonna manage the content. And most of these free guys aren’t gonna allow you to download multiple copies. You know, they wanna grab some contact information from you so that they can go upsell you on other things. So, most of these things are hosted in the cloud. It’s not some little app, you download it, you’re gonna have to access it, you know, via the web. You know, the device is gonna have to have access to the web, which is not the end of the world. But if all of a sudden you start to get to 2, 3, 4 screens, it becomes much more complicated in terms of how you’re going to manage when and where that content’s gonna be delivered. So, you know, the free stuff just has limited features.

Derek DeWitt: I was also thinking like, let’s say you wanted a video wall. A video wall is much more than just a whole bunch of TVs sitting next to each other, you know, playing PowerPoint. It’s, it’s a much more complicated thing than that. And if you’re doing something like that especially, you need to have something that’s purpose built.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, that’s correct. I mean, and the, the limited feature set can come back to bite you. It might be a good way to maybe get started if you don’t really understand this concept. The reality is that most people have never run a television station. And if you compare this concept to a cable or television station, you know, there’s an entire staff dedicated to ensuring that content is relevant, it is refreshed, it’s timely, you know, it’s pertinent. It’s all of those things and someone has to be dedicated to doing it. Just putting messages up on a screen, that’s probably not gonna influence your audience in any way, shape or form.

Derek DeWitt: Right? Not anymore, maybe, maybe, you know, 10 years ago. But nowadays, because digital signage has become so ubiquitous – it’s, it’s everywhere– that it’s, you know, it’s a little bit like we say we’re living in this golden age of television. You know, back in the eighties, maybe there were two or three shows that were, you know, actually worth watching. And now there’s so much, we can’t even keep up. So, you really do, you need to keep sort of pushing the outside of the envelope in order to get people to even give your offering a try. Because why should I waste my time with you? You know, I always say with digital signage, we’re competing with people’s phones. If what you’re putting up there isn’t as interesting or as attractive as what’s on my phone, I’m just gonna use my phone.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, and that’s unfortunately, part of the, you know, the limited feature set that you’re gonna find in free offerings. I mean, playback is typically, you know, just full screen. So, it basically looks like PowerPoint. There are no, you know, visual attractors or hooks, you know, to suck people in, whether it be news feeds, date, time, weather – everybody wants to know what the weather is.

You know, all of those hooks are used to keep the audience engaged with the sign and, and, and television and particularly cable news networks have been doing this for 20 years. You know, they’re using the scrolling ticker across the bottom of the screen to keep you engaged because you might not be interested in what the hosts or talking heads are talking about at that moment. But if you continue to follow that ticker, it’s related to unrelated events associated with what’s on screen at that moment. So, they’re using that technique to keep you engaged.

And, you know, if you think about what it looks like on screen, you know, you’re often bound to templates and it’s the same sort of concept you would find in PowerPoint, the idea of HTML5 delivery because it sounds cool. You know, HTML5 is a really, really powerful standard, but it also has limitations in terms of what can be delivered on screen. And it often looks like webpages, which webpages were designed for personal consumption, not public consumption or large scale consumption.

There’s typically no data integration with freeware or any sort of free software, meaning you can’t connect to databases. So even if we have our one store restaurant and our menu is maintained in the point of sale, you know, application, there’s no way to go get that data. And then the reality is when you’re constrained to these templates and this no data connection, or no data interactivity, you might not even be able to fully convey your message. So, they’re just constraints. I’m not saying it’s the end of the world, but it’s just constrained.

Derek DeWitt: Enterprise level software is designed to be enterprise level. And so, it, it does have efficiencies and it has been improved over time. And so, it kinda in ,the long run, ends up kind of saving money. Because money isn’t just how much I’m getting charged on the corporate credit card. It’s also work hours, it’s effort. It’s all of those things have to be factored in, I think, when you’re thinking about how much something actually costs.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, and you know, beyond the features Derek. I mean, you know, we can talk about all kinds of things as it relates to what sort of services are available. Are those services free? Is technical support free? And what does technical support look like? I mean, we’ve spent decades, again, developing our product offering and our service offering. And if we look at things like training, what sort of training do they, they offer? Is there any sort of LMS? Is it so easy that you can teach yourself? I mean, and if we think about, if it’s so easy that we can teach ourselves, is it as simple as, you know, some apps that we might download on our phone for our own personal use. And if we make mistakes inside our personal use, nobody else gets to see it, right. But if we make mistakes in something that gets published, everybody gets to see it.

So, when you look at the services, it’s just not training. I mean, professional services to help you brand and reinforce what your brand looks like on these displays. Are there content creation people available to help you customize what it looks like so it looks like your restaurant or your gas station, right? What about consulting? Is someone going to for free help embark, you know, best business practices as it relates to this type of communication and help you, you know, measure the success of the time and energy that you’re putting into this free application?

Derek DeWitt: Yes, that’s true. And also, I also think that, you know, obviously there are almost certainly not going to be any tools that allow you to, to measure the effectiveness of things. Was this successful? Was this not successful? Like again, you’d have to sit there, and I guess just watch people look at the screen and take notes. That’s how you could tell. ‘Cause they’re, they’re almost certainly with these very simplified CMS software solutions, there’s not gonna be that kind of measurement capability.

Sean Matthews: That’s a whole different piece of the puzzle, Derek. I mean, it’s not just the analytics of whether or not, you know, people looked at the screen. But did the screen and the content that’s on that screen cause the viewer to change their behavior? And did you create an entire campaign that would allow you to measure whether or not that human behavior was changed as a result of that material being on screen? I mean, it is not a simple concept in terms of measuring the success of this sort of thing.

It’s the same thing as if you spent money on a billboard on an interstate, right. Are you just spending money for your name to be up on that billboard? Or is the billboard provider offering analytical analysis of how many cars passed by that billboard and how did it affect your business? Like, did you really create a campaign that would allow you to measure what was on that billboard and how it impacted your business? I’m not saying it’s rocket science, but it’s not a part of your normal business analysis.

Derek DeWitt: And obviously, technical support would be, like you said, what does it look like? Is it good? Is there any?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, I mean, and again, if there’s a human being on the other side of that, you know, communication tool that you’re using to try to get support with, that human being is not free. We all know that. I mean, in a world that we live in, particularly today, that people are struggling to even find people and paying more and more and more to get them on staff.

So, can you actually talk to somebody if you have technical problems or even you don’t understand how the platform really works? Is the documentation online? Is there online help? Is it just FAQs? You know, how often is the technology even updated when there are changes that are beyond the free company’s integration. Meaning, if there are changes to the operating system underneath and it adversely affects the, the software that you’re using, you know, when do those bug fixes come out and who’s responsible for them?

Derek DeWitt: Well, that’s true. I always think of, you know, how much of a panic there was when all these software platforms were based on XP. And then finally Microsoft said, hey everybody, XP is going away. And everybody, everybody went uh oh, we need, we need to upgrade. And I think, I watched a lot of software, not digital signage software but other kinds of software, basically go away. ‘Cause they were like, we can’t afford at our price point to reconfigure our software to be compliant with Vista and later Windows versions, so I guess we’re just folding up shop.

Sean Matthews: What you’re talking about now, I mean, is really the, the flip side of free, which is, you know, paying for digital signage software, or any type of software that’s related to the enterprise. I mean, commercial vendors like Visix, we have enormous, you know, financial incentives in the form of subscriptions that must be renewed. Because like any software enterprise, we are not looking for client churn, right? We don’t wanna have clients churn and turn over and go somewhere else. We don’t. So, we’re gonna release patches and features and all the things that we need to be responsive to our install base because they’re paying for those subscriptions. And for us, that’s how we survive, grow and remain relevant in the markets we serve.

And you know, when you look at things like enterprise level applications that can scale to any number of users, I mean, you’ve gotta have a robust feature set in that model. Whether it’s, you know, in the cloud or on premise, single sign-on toolsets, regular updates to address security, bugs, new features. I mean, you name it. And of course, you know, if you integrate with other systems so that you have data integrations, those other companies are gonna have technology changes and code changes that we have to respond to. Because in the world of software integration, even if you’re an integration partner, none of us are privy to every single change that one of our partners is gonna make. It’s just not possible. And then we would always be reacting to whatever changes they’re making.

So I mean, I could go on and on about, you know, the reason that you would pay for things. But the reality is that any enterprise product is worth investing in – not only money, but also time and people so that your investment actually has a return on investment. It has an impact on your organization and it’s either more productivity, a greater sense of community or cultural reinforcement in your organization, or it might even be an uptick in sales. But those are the things that you’re looking to impact when you’re using a digital signage product. And I don’t think, and I can’t envision a product that does those types of things for free.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So look, my boss told me, go out and find free digital signage software. That’s it. What do I do? How do I do it?

Sean Matthews: Well first, you need to start with a list of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. And, and you have to state that first. Forget what other features and other things that they, they offer.

You need to get a demo. You’ve gotta go out and get a demo. You need to ask for a pilot. You need for them to train you for how to use that pilot so that you can determine whether or not it’s actually going to support your strategy.

And you know, you need to know, ultimately, can you scale the product? Can you add users, playlists, screens? Is it secure and how is it secure? Give us a written definition of your security. I mean, it, it’s pretty straightforward, but fundamentally you have to define your strategy and then see if those products actually can support or help you implement that strategy.

Derek DeWitt: Well, that all makes absolute sense to me. I hope it makes sense to the people out there listening. Any final words of wisdom for those who would seek the free route.

Sean Matthews: I would say this – don’t spend your time, which is money, which is not free – adapting to the product. You need to go find and choose a product that meets your needs upfront, period.

Derek DeWitt: All right, well, so free is not necessarily free. You gotta check out all the things in there. What are the little hooks? Because there is no company out there that is using digital signage software to make the world a better place. Everybody’s in it trying to get some kind of profit. So, you need to figure out what it is that they’re profiting from and maybe consider going a different route. As always, great to talk to you, Sean. So many insights. Who knew digital signage was so interesting.

Sean Matthews: Well said, Derek.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Thank you very much for talking to me today and thank you everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.