Mobile POS Showdown

By Lisa Terry, Contributing Editor | May 06, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen: Welcome to the mobile POS hardware showdown. In this corner, we have the reigning champion, commercial devices: hardened, secure, built-in peripherals, and also heavy, expensive, and with battery issues. And in this corner, the challenger: iPad and its smart phone cousins: sleek, exciting, cheap, and also insecure, breakable and a temptation for theft. Care to place a bet?
 
After years of moderate use, adoption of mobile POS is picking up: 27% of respondents to the annual HT “Restaurant Tech Study” used wireless POS in 2010, up from 15% in 2009. According to the 2011 study, negative opinions about wireless POS devices – cost, durability, ease of loss – are decreasing, while positive feelings are up: 60% now see value in the investment and 73% agree they increase satisfaction and “wow” guests. But which devices, commercial or consumer, are the best for this growing interest in mobile applications?
 
That’s the challenge facing Hard Rock International (www.hardrock.com), which is testing both types alongside its POS software developer, Micros (www.micros.com), in hopes of firming up a mobile ordering and payment solution by year’s end. “Commercial hardware solutions are so close to catching up with the consumer technology, but we can’t choose right now,” says Joe Tenczar, senior director of IT/CIO. “There are trade-offs to both. Either could work. By the second half of 2011 we should see a lot more choices from commercial players.”
 
In weighing the pros and cons, here are the characteristics hospitality operators are evaluating.
 
Price: Price has been a big obstacle to commercial units and a big draw for consumer-grade. “You can’t ignore the fact that the iPad is less than 25 percent of the cost” of many commercial devices, says Scott Rouvalis, director of IT for JK+T Wings, operator of Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar (www.buffalowildwings.com), Minneapolis, which protects its Apple iPads (www.apple.com) with a $36/year third party warranty.
 
Manufacturers of commercial ordering and payment devices and payment-only devices such as those from VeriFone (www.verifone.com) cite a VDC Research (www.vdcresearch.com) study that finds commercial devices to have a lower total cost of ownership over consumer devices once costs such as lost productivity and replacement are figured in. Leasing is also an option more common for commercial devices than consumer. But several commercial devices have already emerged at lower price points, with more expected to follow. Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com), for example, will have a tablet and a smaller lower-cost rugged device by year’s end.
 
Peripherals: Part two of the price argument is that, by the time you add an MSR reader, bar code scanner, extended battery, and a ruggedized case to a consumer device, even packaged together, such as those from Infinite Peripherals (www.ipcprint.com), the price differential isn’t that big.
 
Durability: In a given day a mobile POS unit might be dropped, spilled on, immersed, banged, abused, or stolen. Okay, some of those would kill even military grade hardware, but device-unfriendly conditions are reasons to pause. Despite its reputation as delicate, though, several operators have had no issues yet carrying iPads around. Buffalo Wild Wings tested three tools: a commercial tablet, an iTouch and an iPad running Hospitality Systems International’s POS software (www.hsi-solutions.com) but hasn’t decided if mobility works for their environment. “We had more problems with the tablet,” says Rouvalis, who adds that the iPad is sealed in a case and fits in aprons.
 
Ruggedness is a real concern for ERJ Dining, a Louisville, Kentucky-based Chili’s franchisee with 124 locations, which uses TableTop Media’s (www.tabletopmedia.com) Ziosk for on-table entertainment, payment and limited ordering. “It has to withstand a fall from the table, take a beating from kids playing on it,” says Scott Bedows, director of IT. “It’s easy to jump to consumer grade because of the cost, but a lot of times they don’t hold up. You end up spending more in the long run.”
 
Battery Life: Battery life is proving a real obstacle for Hard Rock, says Tenczar; in a tablet test in its Tampa location, one commercial tablet’s battery lasted just two hours. “That is obviously unacceptable to efficient restaurant operations and I won’t put a tablet into general production until we can get at least a full shift out of it.” So far, most consumer devices are winning accolades for their battery capacity over commercial. But some devices defy that generalization, so look carefully.
 
Software and Platform: Choices in mobile POS depend on the decisions your POS vendor is making. If you want integration or porting to a new platform, you may have to wait; or pay for it yourself. Another consideration: whether the application runs as a native app, on a browser, or through terminal emulation. Mobile platforms such as Windows CE and Mobile are considered more enterprise-friendly than the more “open” and therefore vulnerable consumer operating systems such as iOS and Android.
 
NFC: Near-field communication-based payment is coming. The question is how to plan for it: internal or external RFID reader? “If it’s internal, commercial devices have a leg up, because there isn’t one in an iPad, and there’s no USB,” says Hard Rock’s Tenczar. “If it’s external, that favors consumer devices because of their innate interface ability to local peripherals.”
 
Ergonomics/UI: Brian Pearson, CIO of Stacked Restaurants, LLC (www.stacked.com) wishes that the enterprise guys would take a page out of the consumer electronics play book. “The commercially available solutions we’ve seen at other concepts just don’t compare with consumer products. Compared to the iPad, or iPod Touch they either run too hot, are too heavy, or their batteries don’t make it through the shift.” Servers at Larson’s Frostop, St. George, UT (www.larsensfrostop.blogspot.com) carry case-wrapped iPads right out to cars with no problems; not even sunlight, says Kim Garrett, owner. “We thought we’d have trouble with drops, but it’s bigger so it’s almost easier to carry.” Larsen’s uses Digital Dining (www.menusoft.com), which will have an iTunes application by June.
 
Servers at Cava (www.cavamezze.com) find using an iTouch and its Action Systems (www.rmpos.com) software easier than a previously used commercial device. “Customers think we’re on the phone texting when we take an order but when we show them they are amazed,” says Andreas Georgiou, manager of Cava’s Rockville, MD, restaurant. “Servers love it.”
 
Security: When the asset is mobile, operators worry they’ll disappear. The iPad’s irresistible appeal makes theft a real possibility, even with the application locked down. Security was another appealing aspect of the Ziosk for ERJ Dining. “The fact that it’s a limited use device was extremely appealing for us,” says Bedows.
 
PCI Compliance: Taking payment? The PCI Security Standards Council’s (www.pcisecuritystandards.org) November 2010 announcement to delist mobile payment applications while they review requirements, and subsequent addendum that threw the security of the underlying mobile device into question, means that until the PCI Council offers more, hospitality executives must scrutinize the security offered by any wireless device.

The Ultimate Arbiter: Once security concerns are put to rest, there is one expert that can give the definite thumbs up or down to any mobile POS device. “Servers will tell you what works,” and abandon devices that don’t help them, says Stacked’s Pearson, who has tried many mobile solutions at other concepts. “If you listen to them, you’ll see it in the first couple of weeks.”

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