Reading Between the Lines: Embedded Systems Driving Enterprise Solutions
In today's "post-PC era," technological convergence is blurring the lines between embedded controls and desktop functions, and bringing the two together in ways that offer exciting business opportunities. Retail and finance are two sectors that are benefiting from the industry trend of widespread connectivity aimed at improving the everyday shopping experience for both customers and retailers.
The embedded systems industry and enterprise computing have been around in one form or another for more than 30 years. During that time, the distinctions between embedded systems and other systems were clear. For instance, the desktop workstation was where a user entered data, designed graphics or monitored a network. The advent of more sophisticated technology enabled functionality that has become standard, including network connectivity, database management, telephony, printing and plug-in capabilities.
Traditionally, embedded systems had been spread over a broad range of application segments, such as industrial automation, medical instrumentation, digital television, communication devices and intelligent transportation systems. Since many of these embedded devices were single-purpose in nature, most of these projects could be deployed using a simple threaded realtime operating systems (RTOS) or one that was developed in-house. And once fielded, most of these embedded devices operated independently from the rest of the world, controlling a specific task, sensor or timer.
In today’s "post-PC era," technological convergence is blurring the lines between embedded controls and desktop functions, and bringing the two together in ways that offer exciting business opportunities. Companies are scrambling to understand the unique requirements and opportunities afforded by systems comprised of large numbers of small devices connected to a powerful infrastructure. Such opportunities demand a sophisticated and reliable system that requires less memory and less expensive hardware than Windows or UNIX. Yet, most embedded RTOSs were not designed to handle systems of this complexity.
Retail and finance are two sectors that are benefiting from the industry trend of widespread connectivity aimed at enhancing customer service, improving operational efficiency, cutting costs and even boosting employee retention. The @POS system is a useful example of what a deployed device powered by a sophisticated RTOS can do to revolutionize what is generally considered one of the most common and uninteresting events in commerce – the retail transaction. The ubiquitous cash register evolved from a mechanical system to an electronic register with embedded controllers. Credit card readers and check verification systems are now standard on these systems. As hardware has become more powerful and the Internet more pervasive, more radical changes are on the horizon.
The Web-enabled POS device was developed by @pos.com Inc. and includes e-services offered by ReceiptCity. These services include providing retailers and credit card processors with secure electronic receipt hosting and management; giving customers of participating retailers Web sites where they can store and manage their own receipts and receive special offers; and delivering personalized ads, promotions and surveys to in-store shoppers, via the Web-enabled POS device.
At the heart of a retailer’s in-store services is the iPOS TCTM (interactive point-of-sale transaction computer), which features dual-channel technology, connecting to the electronic cash register and the Internet. At first glance, the device doesn’t appear to differ much from other models that offer credit card reading and signature capture on a display. However, as soon as a shopper starts a payment transaction, it is clear that it represents the next step in retail payment transaction – one whose use of an embedded system improves efficiency for both the enterprise and the consumer, all while creating a service-driven business model that can respond to new market opportunities.
When a shopper swipes a credit card through the card reader, the data on the card is sent simultaneously to a transaction processor for authentication and through a secure Internet connection to the ReceiptCity data center. At the data center, the customer ID is passed to a profiling engine that looks up previous buying patterns. This triggers the presentation of ads on the card reader’s LCD screen, as well as promotions tailored to the shopper’s unique interests as reflected in the shopper’s profile. In a department store, such ads can be used to motivate shoppers to make additional purchases (for example, prompting the consumer to buy a necktie to go with the new shirt they are buying). One-on-one marketing is the retailers’ Holy Grail; the Web-enabled device provides the means to attain it. While the device waits for authentication, the LCD display can also flash colorful, animated ads from other (non-competitive) stores and companies and from brand managers seeking to reach in-store customers, giving retailers a new revenue stream. The unit can also be used to display information on upcoming in-store events, sales or the store’s return policy. It also offers a way for a retailer or brand manager to survey shoppers, who are far more likely to tap a star or circle on the display than devote their time to completing paper-based surveys.
While the graphics displayed on the high-resolution LCD screen can be captivating, their presentation does not slow the transaction itself. Once the transaction has been authenticated, the customer uses a stylus to sign on the touch-sensitive screen. The signature is digitized and stored on ReceiptCity’s data center server. While the device and receipt storage mean that retailers can make receipt management completely paperless, if needed, the system can print the receipt using the captured signature, providing the best of both worlds.
Should a retailer need a receipt for charge-back resolution, retrieving a digital file costs far less than retrieving a paper copy. Better yet, when customers retrieve their own receipts, the retailer avoids any customer service costs for receipt retrieval.
At this stage of the transaction, the payment transaction device is networked to the store’s server. By using the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) rather than Windows CE or another equally closed system, the @pos.com device offers more flexibility, since connectivity, security and multimedia were built into the foundation of the language. Using this software, the device captures a digital image of the signature and uploads this information to the server, along with all the transaction information.
ReceiptCity’s eReceiptSM service gives retailers a secure vault for storing purchase information and receipts. This not only streamlines customer service by enabling instant retrieval of purchase receipts in their entirety, but further reduces overhead by virtually eliminating the problems of receipt resolution for those customers who "lose" their receipts and attempt to return half of a two-for-one purchase for full price. Of course, quick access to actual transaction information also benefits honest shoppers who truly have lost their receipts, but need to return merchandise purchased at pre-Christmas prices after post-holiday markdowns have been made. Thanks to the flexibility of the open system, ReceiptCity’s data center can service multiple stores, driving down the overall cost of its receipt management services.
The ReceiptCity database of purchase information enables retailers to create customer profiles based on previous buying patterns. Retailers can use this information to optimize one-to-one marketing, not only at their brick-and-mortar stores but also via links to their Web sites. When shoppers go to the ReceiptCity.com powered Web site or to a participating merchant’s site, the ads and promotions that they see will actually interest them since they will be in synch with what the shoppers have identified as their special interests when they registered at the Web sites. In time, shopper visits to the sites will be motivated as much by wanting to check out new promotions as by wanting to view and manage their receipts.
Line-item receipt management is one of ReceiptCity’s unique offerings for shoppers. Once they’ve accessed their receipts, shoppers can "manage" the receipts to efficiently accomplish otherwise tedious tasks. Besides tracking purchases, shoppers can "tag" each line item on the receipt as a business expense and/or tax deduction and download it right into expense report software or Quicken. Once deals are struck with manufacturers, shoppers will be able to use their electronic receipts to register product warranties online – and make claims online, too.
Since the end-to-end Java 2 framework reduces incompatibilities between the enterprise and the deployed device, Java is used throughout the entire system. It executes as a critical component in the enterprise portion (ReceiptCity) and the deployed device portion (@pos). The development teams on both sides communicate with each other in a technically compatible way, with a common problem-solving approach. This also allows for rapid application development because much of the deployed device application can be designed, developed and debugged on the host machine as the hardware is completed.
An Intel‚ StrongARM‚ SA-1100 processor running at 190 megahertz powers the card reader and display. It contains eight megabytes of flash memory and 16 megabytes of upgradeable DRAM. The presentation of such marketing messages on in-store devices is used as one of the revenue streams in the ReceiptCity business model.
Under the cover of @pos.com’s new device is OS-9‚ a high-availability, process-based RTOS with tightly integrated graphics and networking. Java was designed for centralized application management through applets. Because of the unique design of OS-9, developers can not only download Java applets from a central spot to these devices, but can create plug-ins in C, C++ or Assembly that can be downloaded to the device through standard or wireless networks. OS-9 provides multi-network capability with a drop-in networking subsystem. This driver-based networking architecture offers many in-store installation options, including USB, 802.11 wireless, TCP/IP, serial or modem dial-up. AGFA Font Technology is built in for support of Latin and international fonts, including Asian character sets. The field-proven, runtime architecture of OS-9 provides a very firm foundation for the high-performance, small-footprint JVM implementation.
The signature capture algorithm is legacy code, but by using Java 2: Micro Edition as the overall framework, @pos.com was able to carry forward this intellectual property in its evolution into an Internet company. Java Native Invocation (JNI) is into the Java language that increases reliability and shrinks time-to-market. Due to the module-based architecture and integrated tool set of OS-9, it proved simple to integrate the legacy code into its card reader signature capture software.
The card reader’s GUI is provided by a combination of Kalos Espresso, a PersonalJava technology-based GUI toolkit and Espial Escape, a Java-based Web browser with support for a secure socket layer. Since no predefined user paradigm was forced into the device by Sun, Microware or Espial, the @pos.com designers were free to take advantage of every pixel of screen real estate as they designed the intuitive interface. In this case, Java truly is "fit to purpose."
The Beauty of Open Standards
For enterprise systems today, mobility and convenience are the watchwords. New ideas continue to drive demand for sophisticated technology. Java is increasingly the logical choice, addressing such fundamental issues as security, distributed processing and end-to-end compatibility. This open standard cuts down on the long hours IS personnel tend to work by allowing them to inherit a generous quantity of flexible, integrated and pre-debugged code, while capitalizing on their previous legacy code investment.
Companies are providing information and services to their customers, partners, employees and suppliers by combining existing enterprise information services with new business functions and delivering them to a range of users. These service-driven, centrally located networks are creating new markets, opportunities and requirements for manufacturers. By leveraging vested IP and legacy code inside an open and standardized framework, information can be transferred from the data center to the device and vice versa. Businesses that decide to seize upon the advantages of what is offered by these new technologies are the ones that will prosper; those that don’t will be left to wonder, "What happened?"
About the Author: Alan Anderson is Director of Java Technology at Microware Systems Corporation (Des Moines, Iowa; www.microware.com).