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OS is key to next-gen POS terminals

Posted: 25 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:point-of-sale? POS terminal? operating system?

By John Boladian
Microsoft Corp.

Point-of-sales (POS) terminals have played a very critical role in the evolution of the retail sales industry, extending its application from simple transaction machines at the checkout counter in a provision store. Automated transactions have decreased customer waiting time at the cash counter and increased customer value for the retailer.

POS terminals have transcended several industries like hospitality, inventory management and health care. They have become the control center for any retail operation and a vital tool for the operations manager to control the neural network of devices scattered regionally.

With the streamlining of business processes across the value chain, POS terminals not only have to perform conventional tasks like transaction automation but also connect back-end systems integration and be more consumer-oriented by supporting the way customers want to interact with the retailer. Automation of business processes means that terminals must provide customizable sales reporting, multi-terminal networking, complete inventory tracking and custom inventory reporting. Increasingly, POS terminals are also web-enabled, which makes remote training and operation possible and enables inventory tracking across geographically dispersed locations. One of the great aspects of multi-networked POS terminals is the ability to use a shared internet connection to perform critical transactions.

In light of these changes in the business landscape, the legacy POS system is not sufficient to fulfill the demands meted on it and fails miserably if used in today's high-traffic business environment. Traditional POS terminals are not only cost inefficient, but also require their own dial-up phone line, and cannot interface with multiple POS registers. For example, Kitamura Co. Ltda camera and photographic retailer in Japanfound it difficult to connect its POS using legacy terminals which resulted in lack of speed and diminished customer service through operation. Kitamura also found that its maintenance costs had increased and customer-fulfillment had reached an all time low.

OS magic
Generally, a POS terminal has as its core a PC, which is provided with application specific programs such as cash dispensing and inventory management, and I/O devices for the particular environment in which it will serve such as monitors and printers. Critical to the performance and service availability of POS is the operating system.

The OS allows the terminal to perform simple tasks like bill calculation and complex tasks like inventory management. Services available on a terminal are a function of the OS and platform of the terminal. OEMs have the option of choosing a standard OS like Linux or Windows XP Professional, an embedded focused OS such as Windows XP Embedded, or better yet a custom-built POS OS like Windows Embedded for Point of Service (WEPOS). Although standard OS are sufficient to fulfill basic POS needs and extend customer-value up to a certain level, custom-built POS OS are better suited to support the complex requirements of the industry today.

Yeahpoint uses Windows Embedded for Point of Service (WEPOS) for inventory tracking.

A custom-built POS OS should enable easier development, device plug-and-play capability, integration with other OS, flexibility and management, and offer lower lifecycle cost opportunities as well as provide fundamental networking and traditional server capability. Cutting-edge POS terminals are self-managing, self-diagnosing, and in many cases self-healing. As they can do functions of both a PC and a POS terminal, the built-in features of a media player can be used to stream short training videos during downtime and users can resume transaction mode by scanning a product barcode for example.

To meet the challenge of system integration, the industry has developed a standardunified POS (UPOS)which aims to standardize device interactions. UPOS is a retail driven initiative to combine device interface standards under one specification to allow retailers freedom of choice in the selection of POS devices.

A custom-built POS OS should implement the common UPOS standard to allow device plug-and-play. Microsoft's flagship OS for POS, WEPOS, has a class library Microsoft POS for .NET, which implements UPOS version 1.9 standards into the OS itself. POS for .Net provides applications with a simple and consistent interface for communicating with POS peripheral devices. In addition, POS for .NET includes a set of programming interfaces and base classes, which define contacts between POS application and service objects, and they expose all the functionality defined for each device by UPOS.

Having a custom-built OS complying required industry standards means that vendors can write software components, or service objects, for their devices. This translates into plug-and-play support for peripheral devices, which could not have been possible with a standard OS on a POS terminal. These remote management and administration features in the OS, makes it easier to manage POS terminals. In addition, with a server backed through to client being on one platform, there is no need for a separate system for computer infrastructure. This coupled with tools familiar to IT administrators means that the POS system can be managed by the standard IT team, thereby streamlining overall system-wide management.

Yeahpoint terminal running WEPOS increases customer value by recommending recipes.

Custom-built difference
Yeahpoint, a digital media company that creates interactive signage solutions for retailers, established its business using a custom OS which was able to fulfill its requirements at that time. But as the business grew, Yeahpoint found that its current OS was unable to integrate with client's back-end systems, which limited its ability to provide integrated services. Yeahpoint then changed its legacy OS to a custom-built WEPOS.

The POS for .NET functionality offered by WEPOS provided plug-and-play peripheral support that enabled retailers to install and integrate current and legacy retail devices quickly into the POS system. Besides easy integration, switching to a custom-built POS OS lowered device lifecycle costs, expanded solutions for clients by using advanced multimedia technologies that come along with a custom OS, and lowered development costs by using deployment and management technologies.

As POS terminals evolve to meet newer business requirements in terms of plug-and-play capability and back-end systems integration, the OS is going to play a critical role in next generation POS terminals. While many retailers view POS as a commodity, this thinking will change as they need to be more strategic and adopt newer-generation POS terminals and find ways to enable more customer-friendly interactions and better shopping experiences. It is important that retailers choose an operating system capable of supporting legacy POS applications in order to provide an easier migration path to the future, and control capital expenditure costs.

About the author
John Boladian
is lead product manager for Windows Embedded at Microsoft Asia Pacific and Greater China.

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