How to Choose a Kiosk OS

David Ruddock
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When choosing a kiosk OS, you have to factor features, complexity, available hardware options, and more into your decision. iOS, Windows, Android, and Linux all can serve as capable kiosk operating systems, but each has its benefits and drawbacks — and each requires a serious commitment to deploy and support.

Cost, however, is the most important end metric for most kiosk deployments — and your OS choice can have huge implications on the total cost of ownership for your kiosks.

Kiosk OS cost: Android vs iOS vs Windows vs Linux

https://www.esper.io/blog/aosp-missing-features-google-gms
Kiosk hardware cost pros and cons for iOS, Linux, Windows, and Android

Evaluating the cost of a given kiosk OS holistically is challenging — use cases, hardware, and device service lifetime can all greatly affect the overall cost of deploying and supporting an operating system for a kiosk. However, three major considerations affect all kiosk deployments.

  1. Long-term support (LTS): The cost of supporting kiosks for 5, 7, or even 10+ years varies wildly. Windows explicitly offers extended long-term support for an additional fee (for some devices), while iOS devices tend to get around 7 years of support. Android devices have shorter, nonnegotiable support lifetimes (2-3 years). And Linux is usually only supported long-term if you choose to support it.
  2. Licensing costs: Operating systems like Windows come with per unit or other volume licensing costs. AOSP Android, iOS, and Linux have no licensing costs.
  3. Hardware costs: iOS and Windows raise the price floor of kiosk devices when compared to Android and Linux, both of which can utilize cheaper off-the-shelf hardware.

There is no "right" OS for a kiosk, but there are better choices for many common use cases.

https://www.esper.io/blog/aosp-missing-features-google-gms
Kiosk operational costs for iOS, Linux, Windows, and Android

How much does an Android kiosk cost?

Android is usually the most economical choice when selecting a kiosk OS. Android is open source, meaning there is no direct cost associated with using the platform. However, Android devices produced for the consumer market tend to have very short software support lifetimes before being "EOL"ed (end of lifed) by their manufacturers. Low cost Android devices on the enterprise and business market tend to be even worse, often receiving no software support whatsoever. This can understandably make Android look unappealing.

However, working with a partner (like Esper), you can build world-class Android kiosk experiences that can be sustainably scaled to tens or hundreds of thousands of devices.

How much does a Windows kiosk cost?

Windows appeals to those who value long-term support above all other concerns. With Windows, hardware peripheral support, licensing, and long term support are all packaged together, and the customer knows with a high degree of predictability what their total cost of ownership will be. Entry level Windows kiosk devices are often very expensive given they must also be fully functioning PCs to run the Windows OS. In short, Windows is almost never an economical kiosk OS choice on any level, but it is one that can provide exceptionally long device lifetime and very high cost predictability.

How much does an iPad kiosk cost?

iOS devices (iPad, iPhone), like Windows devices, are quite expensive. That cost makes iOS devices wholly unsuitable for certain kiosk use cases. Where hardware cost is no object, though, Apple offers the most powerful devices in the most modern form factors (albeit an extremely limited selection of them). iOS also receives reasonably good long term support, so costs can be spread over the asset lifetime. Locking yourself into Apple's consumer hardware update cycle and pricing structure could greatly inhibit your ability to scale.

How much does a Linux kiosk cost?

Linux has a very low initial cost associated with it, making it appealing to those with more human resources than financial ones. But the amount of work necessary to build your own Linux distro as a kiosk OS would be tremendous — even if you could, it's highly unclear that you should.

Kiosk OS vs kiosk software vs kiosk mode

When talking about kiosks, there are a number of layers to the product and its software that must be considered separately. Your kiosk OS is not the same as your kiosk software, and kiosk mode can be a feature of either!

What is a kiosk OS?

Your kiosk OS is the underlying operating system (e.g., Windows, Android, iOS, Linux) powering your kiosk device. Your kiosk OS may include features like "kiosk mode," or that functionality may require additional software to implement.

The kiosk OS is the most important technological choice you will make about your kiosk. It has huge impacts on total cost of ownership, hardware cost and selection, peripheral compatibility, software compatibility, and more. Your kiosk OS has to be reliable, robust, and reachable — because all the kiosk software in the world can't fix an OS that lets it down with unexpected reboots, going offline, or freezes.

What is kiosk software vs kiosk OS?

Kiosk software runs on top of the kiosk OS. You can think of kiosk software, effectively, as the app that runs the kiosk software your user sees on the end device. That software may talk to your inventory management, CRM, back of house, printers, and various cloud services. While many focus on the kiosk software as the most important part of the kiosk experience  — because it enables the actual transactional and functional nature of your kiosk — in truth, kiosk software is mature and supported by a large ecosystem of both integrated hardware and independent software vendors across most major operating systems.

What is kiosk mode vs kiosk OS?

Kiosk mode is a specific function of a kiosk device. Kiosk mode locks the device to a single application, preventing tampering or misuse of the device by the end user. Kiosk mode can be implemented in a variety of ways, but most kiosks are enabled with MDM (mobile device management) solutions.

Windows, Android, and iOS all provide developer tools for MDM providers to lock down these operating systems to a kiosk use case, and those providers then sell their MDM software as a service — with kiosk mode being one of the MDM "features." But MDM solutions were designed for generic employee smartphones and laptops, not mission critical devices like kiosks handling point of sale, and kiosks require much more active and powerful management than those devices.

That's to say: While kiosk mode is what you want your kiosk to do at the end of the day (and it sounds simple enough, right?), the way you get there and the technology decisions you'll make are actually much more important to your business's efficiency and deployment speed than "kiosk mode."

Which kiosk OS is easiest to set up?

While there's no straightforward answer to this question, the highly adaptable nature of the Android platform and the huge number of hardware platforms it supports makes it the simplest for the overwhelming majority of use cases.

Android was designed as an always-on, wireless enabled, touch screen computing environment. In many ways, Android is an ideally architected kiosk OS for rapid setup. Using an Android DPC (device policy controller, like Esper's), you can install and lock an Android tablet to your kiosk software in a matter of minutes. And if you have a good partner for your device management, scaling that to your entire fleet takes hours — not weeks or months.

Which kiosk OS is best for a mixed fleet?

Mixed fleets are increasingly common as more businesses introduce dedicated devices like kiosks and inventory management handhelds. Your fleet may use iOS for retail point of sale, Windows for warehouse inventory management, and Android for employee multifunction handsets (mobile POS, scanner).

The benefits of choosing a unified kiosk OS across your entire fleet, especially if you can own the firmware for those devices, can be tremendous. With Esper Foundation for Android, you can build and customize your own Android kiosk OS firmware for your specific hardware and use case — and with our Foundation x86 product, you can even run your Android kiosk on Intel hardware.

Kiosk Device Management

Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik

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David Ruddock
David Ruddock

David's tech experience runs deep. His tech agnostic approach and general love for technology fueled the 14 years he spent as a technology journalist, where David worked with major brands like Google, Samsung, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Verizon, and Amazon, reviewed hundreds of products, and broke dozens of exclusive stories. Now he lends that same passion and expertise to Esper's marketing team.

David Ruddock
Learn about Esper mobile device management software for Android and iOS
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For tablets, smartphones, kiosks, point of sale, IoT, and other business-critical edge devices.
MDM Software
Kiosk mode icon as a feature in mobile device management software

Kiosk mode

Hardened device lockdown for all devices (not just kiosks)
App management icon as a feature in mobile device management software

App management

Google Play, Apple App Store, private apps, or a mix of all three
Devices groups icon as a feature in mobile device management software

Device groups

Manage devices individually, in user-defined groups, or all at once
Remote tools icon as a feature in mobile device management software

Remote tools

Monitor, troubleshoot, and update devices without leaving your desk
Touchless provisioning as a feature in mobile device management software

Touchless provisioning

Turn it on and walk away — let your devices provision themselves
Reporting and alerts as a feature in mobile device management software

Reporting and alerts

Custom reports and granular device alerts for managing by exception