5 Open Source Digital Signs for Small Businesses

If you’ve spent any time shopping for digital signs for your small business, you might be a tad discouraged at the cost and complexity. But thanks to Linux and Android, you can enjoy a whole new generation of software, services, and devices that range from free to inexpensive, and that offer all kinds of great features. Talk about a boon for your small business marketing.

Amazingly flexible, digital signs can display simple images, slideshows, movies, Web pages, and dynamic content pulled in from the Internet, or whatever sources you want to use. Anything you can do on a computer you can put into digital signage.

Digital Signs: Android or Linux?

Android, the popular Linux variant, is slimmed-down for portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, gaming and media boxes, and desktops and laptops. It also makes a dandy lightweight, power-frugal platform for digital signs. You can stuff an entire Android operating system, plus your multimedia presentations, into a matchbox-sized case and run a big screen with it.

Linux is a mature general-purpose enterprise operating system hardened by two decades of development and use in the most demanding environments, from embedded devices, desktops, laptops, and small servers to mainframes and supercomputers. It’s stable, secure, and adaptable.

So which one is better? Both. If you’re looking for a digital sign system with software, hardware, and support, you’ll find a lot of Android options. If you’re more inclined to do-it-yourself, or have good tech people, then Linux offers a wider choice of software, and you can run it on pretty much any hardware.

Digital signage is just a fancy term for your stuff on a screen—like schedules, commercials, product information, menus, catalogs, order forms, or anything you want. You can use just about any kind of display: televisions, ordinary computers and monitors, small form-factor hardware like the Raspberry Pi, digital photo screens, heavy-duty commercial-grade computer monitors, big outdoor screens, and big free-standing touch-screen kiosks.

Check out Viewsonic and Samsung to get an idea of what’s in the wide world of video screens. If you can connect a computer to it, you can make it display whatever you want.

5 Open Source Digital Sign Options

1. Droid Signage Hardware and Software

DroidSignage offers bundles of hardware players and software, so all you need are HDMI display screens and Internet access. Your content management system and editor is online, and you manage and update your devices online. If your screens reside in locations without Internet access, then you can set up everything online, download your content to a USB stick and plug that in to your displays.

DroidSignage

Figure 1: Adorable Droid Signage logo.

The sign editor includes lots of features, and it lets you divide pages into independent segments. Each segment can display something different and update on its own schedule. You can schedule transitions, sequences, and campaigns any way you like.

The hardware also offers flexibility; you can add extra storage, credit card readers and printers, cell phone dongles, Web cams, touch screens, and RFID readers.

2. Novisign Android Signage as a Service

If you’re new to digital signage, Novisign ranks as one of the easier digital-sign-as-a-service vendors to use. You simply need display screens with Internet access, a Novisign account and away you go. Novisign provides an online editor with a batch of templates, and a free Android app for Android displays. If your needs are simple and you want non-tech people to manage your signage, give Novisign a try.

3. Raspberry Digital Picture Frame Software

The Raspberry Pi is the amazing little single-board computer originally designed as an educational tool for children, but it’s also a big hit with adults for its low price—starting around $30—and adaptability. Binary Emotions offers several worthy digital sign applications that run on the Raspberry Pi, including the super-easy Raspberry Picture Frame Slideshow.

This product displays your images in a full-screen slideshow, and Web pages from a simple text list of URLs. All you do is download and install the Raspberry Picture Frame Slideshow operating system to a USB stick, copy your images or URLs to the same USB stick, plug it into the Raspberry Pi and boot up. It runs in protected full-screen mode so nobody can mess with it.

Raspberry Pi picture frame display

Figure 2: Raspberry Pi picture frame display.

Raspberry Picture Frame Slideshow is free to download and use. If you like it you should drop a few bucks in their PayPal account. Donations get you access to software with enhanced features.

4. Xibo for Power Users

Xibo signage software—a slick, sophisticated Web application—runs on your Linux, Mac, or Windows server. It is a free download with no limitations; you get full functionality whether or not you feed the tip jar.

Running Xibo requires a bit more tech savvy. For an average tech nerd it’s easy to install and do the basic setup. Xibo, like most Web apps, has three components: the server, the administration interface, and the display clients. Currently the display client software runs on Windows, Ubuntu Linux, and Android. The Windows and Linux clients are free, while the Android client costs about $25 per client.

Xibo signage software

Figure 3: Xibo provides more sophistication, but requires a higher level of tech savvy.

Once it’s installed, you have the full power of your operating system and applications for designing and running your digital signs. You can make simple slideshows in your favorite slideshow app, run videos, use a content management system like Drupal or WordPress for rich dynamic content—the sky’s the limit. Xibo comes with a batch of content management tools such as schedulers, templates and layouts, tickers, transitions, and a user-management system for dividing up the work in a secure fashion.

If you’re not into running your own server, you can opt for inexpensive managed hosting from Xibo’s sponsor Spring Signage, which frees you up to concentrate your resources on building your pretty digital sign displays.

5. MediaSignage For Free

The MediaSignage company offers a range of digital signage products including the free mediaCloud, mediaPlayers, mediaServer, and mediaHybrid. MediaCloud provides everything you need to create and manage your content, and some decent analytics tools as well. You provide the Internet-connected screens to display your content. This Web application is pure software-as-a-service, so your content runs on any client platform: Android, Linux, Mac, and Windows.

If you want a standalone or portable player, the mediaDroid-85 player is a matchbox-sized Android computer that plugs into a USB port on your screen. It delivers smooth audio and 720p video, and includes a USB port for piggybacking any other USB devices. It costs only $125 and includes all the software you need to run sophisticated video. The mediaDroid-150 player ($195) is a little bigger and more powerful, plays 1080p video, and plugs into any HDMI port.

The digital signage market is just beginning to explode thanks to Android and Linux, small powerful hardware, and cloud services. If you’re into digital signage, as a customer or as a vendor, this is a great time to be in the business.

Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She’s the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.

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