Urushi and the art of creating a Digital Signage solution for Android

The Digital Signage industry has been buzzing with announcements about the “Next Big Thing”: a Digital Signage solution for Android.

On paper, this sounds very tempting: using low cost devices (a Stick or TV Box), developing an App that can connect to a server platform and, hey presto, problem solved!

However, this simplistic approach, which shouldn’t even be promoted in the business industry in the first place, is even more inappropriate where Android is concerned.

Android! What’s it all about?

The Android operating system was developed by the Open Handset Alliance, led by Google, and uses Open Source technology.

As its name suggests, this OS was developed for handsets, namely devices such as Smartphones and Tablets. Then the Android TV Stick and TV Box were launched, in order to offer a Tablet-like user experience on TVs as well.
This is where the idea of developing Digital Signage Apps that can run on these devices turning a display into a Digital Signage player with minimum effort and at a low cost comes from.

In spite of many companies boasting and advertising their Digital Signage Android solutions, the market reality shows that no solution can be deemed universally applicable.

Difficulties with Android

Unlike PC-Windows-based solutions, Android presents some obstacles due to the intrinsic nature of its devices and operating system:

  1. Android devices available on the market have been designed and developed for the consumer segment. Factors such as resistance to acts of vandalism, remote management or 24/7 functionality have not been taken into consideration.
  2. Android’s operating system has been conceived to offer the best flexibility of usage for the widest range of solutions. Thousands of Apps, from the most frivolous to the most sophisticated, must work on a Smartphone or Tablet. This universality entails some compromises in terms of durability and reliability, which cannot be acceptable for business usage.
  3. Android is constantly evolving and APIs are released every four months. If for the consumer market moving from the gingerbread man to the ice cream sandwich and then the Kit Kat is just an evolution of functions and graphic interface, doing the same with an Enterprise class app represents a significant challenge.
  4. The constant evolution of operating systems is associated to a variety of combinations of hardware components (CPU, GPU, USB Hub, memory, etc.) which, along with their corresponding Firmwares and Drivers, result in an infinite number of variations.

How to overcome Android difficulties

The question which spontaneously arises is: is it possible to create a Digital Signage solution based on Android which can offer all the features of durability, scalability and manageability worthy of an Enterprise class application?

The answer is yes, but only if the developer has a totally different approach to those who want to take advantage of current trends to gain a short-term profit, then leaving customers empty-handed.

A comparison that explains this clearly is provided by Japanese masters of Urushi artwork.

Urushi is a pottery lacquering technique which makes it possible to reach an incomparable level of intensity and brightness of colours. This technique consists in skilfully applying a coat of enamel, letting it dry naturally, polishing it and repeating the process (even dozens of times).

Ettore Sottsass, Box 'Utsusemi', design 2002, manufactured 2007 for MaruTomi, Japan. Urushi lacquer, black (roiro finish). Photo: Kinoshita Yasuhiko

Ettore Sottsass, Box ‘Utsusemi’, design 2002, manufactured 2007 for MaruTomi, Japan. Urushi lacquer, black (roiro finish). Photo: Kinoshita Yasuhiko

This skilled and patient procedure can take quite some time: glazing a vase can take months.
Of course, in the field of software development, it is hard to reach such level of perfection, which is in some way connected to the spiritual dimension of the craftsman.
But just like Urushi masters, developers of Digital Signage solutions for Android must be unflinching, humble, able to reinvent themselves, proceed step by step, leave their work to dry (in the form of a prosaic stress test), polish (correct the code) and then apply another coat.

How develop an Android Digital Signage platform in 3 steps

The starting point is, of course, the hardware: there are hundreds of Android Sticks and Tablets.
Which of them can stand the test of a 24/7 365 days per year commitment?
Which of them have the best features in terms of durability, heat dissipation and stability?

From the device selection, we move to the firmware: we know that Android is a “multi-talented” operating system, but when it comes to Enterprise class usage, the firmware must be modified and stripped of all the functions which are not required to fulfil its purpose.
All of this without compromising the guarantee!
Particular care is needed when it comes to storage management and remote management of the device.

Then comes the development and adaptation of the Digital Signage solution itself.
Android’s player can offer basic functions (showing only videos and photos), but a complete solution must also include (also in terms of evolution) widgets, tickers, interaction with third parties solutions, reports compliant to POPAI standards, watchdogs, advanced solutions such as Face Detection, geo-localized and real-time contents linked to external factors (such as the weather). It goes without saying that a professional network of Android players should be managed transparently from only one server platform, like any other PC-based or SMIL player.

Android: yes or no?

Yes! But remember the Urushi masters: apply a holistic approach that starts from the hardware, move to low level functions of the operating system and then reach the final solution. Make sure you have the support of a solid research and development department to follow you in the implementation of your solution and guarantee maintenance and the evolution of the software in years to come.

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