I spend a lot of time looking at cables, and it’s just as glamorous as it sounds. The recent history of retail technology involves hundreds if not thousands of vendors, thousands of peripherals, countless drivers, OPOS, JavaPOS, and endless point of sale (POS) software solutions with their own ways of interfacing to those peripherals. It’s not surprising that so much time has to be spent in pondering the connectivity to be used for any point of sale solution. There are a number of options: USB, Powered USB (12V or 24V), Serial (powered or non-powered), Parallel, PS/2, VGA, DVI and more. When you consider that there can be anywhere from 1 to 12 or even 15 peripherals depending on the POS application, it becomes clear that some careful thought and planning is required.
When configuring systems with customers and partners, there are a number of points we need to discuss that factor into peripheral connectivity decisions. Consider the following items when laying out the best options for peripheral connectivity for a POS system:
Operating System - Legacy software is particularly rampant in retail. Some customers still use MS-DOS (it’s still here and there). Some customers use Linux. There is still widespread use of IBM OS4690 OS. Drivers for peripherals on older platforms like MS-DOS or newer ones like Linux aren’t necessarily as widespread as those for Windows, which can limit the options. It wasn’t until Windows 2000 or so that Windows based OS systems were able to deal reasonably well with USB. Right out of the gate, any USB connectivity could be written off, forcing choices towards the route of serial, parallel, or other legacy interfaces.
Point of Sale Software – As customers move to Windows 7, the OS becomes less of a factor, but the point of sale software can also influence the decision for connectivity. If point of sale software code is able to run on newer Operating Systems with minimal costs to upgrade, retailers may avoid any unnecessary costs and stick with that software. This means that the point of sale software may still require connections via serial and parallel, even though the operating system can handle other options. Now consider the fact that like most reasonable people, retailers prefer to make incremental changes to their environment in order to allow for troubleshooting of potential issues. This means that most retailers prefer to upgrade hardware and software separately. In this instance, the new POS hardware platform will need to work with a legacy platform, as well as a new POS platform. Once again, newer interfaces such as Powered USB may not be leveraged.
POS Usage - There are as many kinds of POS and peripherals as there are retail businesses. Even within those businesses, there are groups that have specific needs that will impact the POS decision. Grocers may have dozens of standard POS at the front of a store with Scanner/Scale, Pinpad, Customer Display, Keyboard/Clerk Display, Printer and Cash Drawer. However, they will have units in Deli, Floral, Cosmetics, or even a Manager’s Back Office Workstation that will have different requirements and thus different peripherals. Any decision has to consider the total business. Ideally there will be one platform that can leverage all of the different peripherals across the different business uses for the systems.
Peripheral Type – Peripherals come in all types and flavours. The vendors need to make their units as usable as possible for as many platforms as possible, but in some cases, the peripheral that is favoured by a business unit may only have one connection option. If the peripheral is that important, it may be necessary to leave room for it, or if the space is not available, an alternative may have to be considered. This is further complicated by the fact that most retailers will have various platforms in place at any one time, so that some sites may have ports for upgrades and some may not.
Power - Over time, the number of peripherals can grow, as new payment options come on board (contactless payments), or if a business moves in a new direction (many retailers selling groceries that have to install scanner/scales). It is important to consider power requirements at the POS as these changes take place. Using legacy connections can mean more power requirements in the way of additional power outlets, or at the very least, the addition of a larger UPS system. Moving to Powered USB or at least Powered Serial can minimize these requirements and potentially save some serious costs that would be incurred for electrical changes in the store.
Future Expandability - Needs change over time, and who is to say what the peripheral of tomorrow may be? RFID item scanner? Cameras? 2d Imagers? Some new EAS system? Any ports discussion needs to consider future expandability. For a small cost, additional vacant ports can be included as part of the solution that will leave room for future projects without having to scrap a POS system or holding up the deployment of a key initiative.
There are no simple answers in evaluating retail peripheral connectivity. Each situation is unique, though the items above should provide some direction. The most important thing is to have a plan. If at all possible, map out each platform and how peripherals are used currently. This will allow for quick responses to business needs when new projects arise, and will allow for a simple reference when the time comes for upgrades and for future planning. I generally suggest moving to Powered USB as much as all of the factors above will allow. Based on the realities of retail platforms, I think that will happen, but it will take time.