Are You Up For a Piece of the Pi?

TinersTakeDS-featuredThe Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized computer, developed by a company in the UK. The stated goal of the company is to provide an inexpensive option for kids all over the world to learn to code. The device is amazingly inexpensive, at $25-$35 per device. The Pi runs a custom distribution of Linux, has an HDMI video output, and 2 USB ports. There is no built in networking, but the company claims that most users attach a wireless USB dongle.

At this point, you are probably wondering why I am writing about the Raspberry Pi in a digital signage column. Good question. The main reason is that over the past year or so, there has been a movement towards “freeware” style digital signage systems. For those of us in markets where budgets are very tight, or the large expense of a full blown digital signage system is out of our reach, these systems are very appealing. I certainly think that most integrators have had an experience where a customer wants a digital sign and is blown away to learn that the monitor is the cheapest piece of the system.

Enter Raspberry Pi and the confluence of freeware systems that are developed around the mini computer. Simply look for RPi Products/Digital Signage on Wikipedia and you will be shocked by the number of tools that have been created.

These developments raise challenges and opportunities for integrators who are trying to sell digital signage. The challenge is that there are potential customers out there who will try and build it themselves using these tools. While this may work for some, particularly if they were engineering majors in college, there is simply too much to learn in order to implement this solution. Larger organizations, with a built in IT team and infrastructure may be more successful, but will seriously need to weigh the time invested in R&D versus the the cost of a full functioning system. My recommendation for integrators who deal with a company who takes this route, is to advise them otherwise and then sit back and wait until they ask you to rescue them.

Our challenge, as integrators, will be to use these tools when appropriate, and guide customers away from them, when appropriate. So, when is it appropriate? If you are an integrator with in house programmers, you may be interested in developing some skills in some of the freeware software applications. These programmers could probably put 40 hours into one of these solutions and build a decent customized system that your company could brand as its own. You could easily earn your investment back on the installs that only need one or two digital signs and minimal content sharing and management. Developing your own system will give you that very low cost, easy to support and install option that many of the small businesses want. Additionally, it will give you access to these companies and the service contracts that will come with the digital signage system. Rather than you paying 6-7k for a system, and making very little profit, the customer can pay you, 5-6k for a system, and you get an ongoing service contract and revenue stream.

How many times have you walked into a business and seen a digital sign with either an error message, just a Windows screen, or turned off altogether? I know I see it all the time. I can only imagine that these systems are like this because someone thought they could install a homegrown or freeware system, only to find out that they did not have the time or knowledge to support it. This is like a golden ticket for you. The monitor is already sitting in place, you don’t even need the labor to install it. You only need to sell a service to the company that allows them to get the sign up and running, without any time from their employees. The hardware is so inexpensive that you can wrap it up in a service contract, so your customer does not feel like they are making another huge investment in hardware. Service contracts like this have great potential for profit, because your margin will be so high.

When do you need to steer people away from such systems? When their need requires a well developed content management system. If your customers are looking at multiple digital signs, then these systems do not provide the content management that they need. As important, you do not want to tie your business into supporting major installs (meaning multiple monitors, all tied into one CMS) of freeware. It would simply be a resource drain on your programmers that would ultimately end with customers being dissatisfied with your service. What are your experiences? As a company are you using any freeware? Have you developed any in-house systems?