I love my iPad. It is a beautiful and elegant piece of technology that has become ubiquitous even to those outside of the world of technology and gadgets. The simplicity of the solution and its broad appeal has lead to inquiries as to the potential of leveraging an iPad as a kiosk in a consumer facing environment.
It’s certainly possible to leverage iPad in a retail environment, and many are doing so – as electronic wine lists, for surveys, or for concierge type use for example. While it may be tempting to use it as a replacement for a more traditional kiosk, using a consumer technology in a commercial application like unattended self service represents some challenges:
Form Factor - The iPad’s 9″ screen is beautiful clear and bright but for a self service application in a retail environment, it is a bit small. Most screens for kiosk in consumer facing applications are 17″ and larger. These screens where consumers can complete tasks are now competing for space with 42″ (and larger) touch widescreens mounted in portrait or landscape perspective within stores, and will increasingly play dual role as digital signage and interactive kiosk. An iPad will be hard pressed to have visual appeal without having a bank of them. If the units are used for any data gathering and the keyboard pops up, the real estate is now cut in half. For many users this is fine, but a large segment of the population will find it a little cramped compared to the standard self service terminal in common use.
Audio - Many self service solutions make use of audio. Unless users have their own headphones or another audio solution is connected, the iPad speakers will be very difficult to hear in most retail environments.
Connectivity - An important element of kiosk solutions is the flexibility to add peripherals to interface with customers in various ways. At present, there is no capability to connect any potential peripherals, as the iPad has only two physical ports. That means no printer, no scanner, no imager, and no proximity solution (mat or infrared), no pinpad, and certainly no cash management peripherals. Internet connectivity is also wireless only on the iPad. While wireless internet is the default for all of us today, in most retail and self service, physical ethernet connectivity is still used for both security and reception.
Remote Support Capability – Any kiosk platform on the market today has remote support capability. They generally send a heartbeat back to base to tell the support team that it is still functioning properly. Units can call home with problems, can be remotely accessed for support purposes, rebooted, and even powered on and off with Intel AMT technology, and many widely available remote support tools. I am not aware of any such functionality on the iPad at present.
Retail Hardening – Kiosk units placed in a retail environment are ruggedized to accommodate temperature fluctuations, millions of not so gentle touches on their screens, spills, dirt, dust, and leverage commercial grade components and materials so that they can be left out in the open in a store 7 days a week, 24 hours per year. The iPad is a well made purpose built device for consumers. It’s made for a user to read a book on a bus, or browse the web at the kitchen table. It’s not made to be left on 24×7 in a store where it will be dropped, spilled on or accidentally hit.
Securing the Unit – If iPads are placed in a retail environment, they will need to be secured to avoid theft. Most kiosks or large format touch screens do not invite theft as a desirable consumer gadget. The iPad will be more of a target for the short term. While the units could be tethered on a table with a cable as they are in the Apple Stores, it’s important to consider their situation in an unattended environment. In Apple stores there are people everywhere and everything is wide open and exposed. This is not the case in most retail environments, so either the units are tethered with cables (which takes away their simple elegance), or they would need to be placed into a custom surround to secure them. It would not take long for the tethering costs to approach or supercede the cost of the iPads. Environmental aspects also come into the equation. Believe it or not, iPads can overheat, and with no fan, it will be important that any securing solution like a cabinet provides adequate ventilation and that the unit is placed away from any environmentally detrimental elements such as a kitchen or a window with direct sunlight. I’ve only had my iPad overheat once – reading outside in the sun last summer – but it can happen. The iPad will shut itself down to avoid damage – leaving the kiosk unusable while it cools.
Roadmap – Apple is notorious for changing their form factors, and as a consumer solution company, they have the need to do so. Consider the changes in the iPod since its inception in 2001. Most retail deployments take place over many years. For this reason, kiosk hardware is made using a consistent chipset over many years, so that applications will behave uniformly over a deployment over many years over thousands of terminals, there is a consistent physical interface across a chain, and when changes are made to the hardware the cabinets and surrounds change as little as possible. The kiosk hardware also has a mostly consistent form factor and common mounting options like Vesa mounting for displays. If custom surrounds or secure connections are made for iPads, they will probably have to be adjusted every spring when Steve Jobs presents the new iPad. This is a daunting ongoing effort for any organization.
Software Updates – Current kiosk solutions provide for remote updating of applications. While the iPhone has the capability for corporate push features for apps, or even using a web based interface to a self service application, a different protocol for solution updates would be required. If the corporate push features are used, it may still be necessary to have on-site staff go to the units to visit the App Store to download updated versions, and there is no way to verify in a simple enterprise manner that this has been completed.
Locking Down the Browser – Self Service Kiosk platforms have browsers or software that are locked down so that users can’t go outside the areas perscribed by the retailer. The solutions do not allow operating system keystrokes like Control-Alt-Delete or Alt-Tab so that users stay on the prescribed application, can’t hack the corporate network, or just ruin the look and feel of the kiosk. I’m not aware of any such capability that is universally available on iPads to lock down the icons, stop the loading of free apps on the units or even limit where users can go on the internet on Safari. Default applications like iPod and Safari can’t even be removed. This is security risk, or at the very least will threaten the look and feel as people add items, type random musings on the system or ignore the suggested application and turn the ‘kiosk’ into an internet cafe.
Ongoing Support – Commercial grade kiosk solutions are designed to last for 7-10 years and more. The components can often be upgraded. On-site service is available for many years to support the life cycle required for self service devices. At present, iPads are consumer devices with increasing power and features that encourage the abandonment of older models for new instead of upgrade and repair. Given new units every year, the only support option will be to send in units for repair in a depot fashion, and it is unlikely that this support will be available for the longer term. Most likely units will need to be replaced on an ongoing basis, which will result in a difficult to support population of units of varying ages and capabilities.
The future of tablets is incredible, with the coming of new models from Samsung, Motorola, and RIM. While there is great potential to leverage these solutions in retail environments, they are not purpose built for self service applications, and even if not used as a self service device, the experience from decades of use of technology in retail should be remembered. Any solution that goes into place has to be supported for the long term if it is to be successful, so retailers should be sure that the infrastructure necessary to support these initiatives considers factors like those listed above.
Using iPad hardware is not the only answer to changing the consumer experience. Current kiosk software solutions can leverage interfaces to provide a similar user experience to the iPad. The simplified and lifelike interface is a big part of what has changed the attitude towards this mobile device, and that can and should be leveraged. More and more commercial grade consumer facing solutions are imitating the physics based, shiny glass button look that iPads and apple solutions provide while providing a larger format, as well as all of the long term support strength needed to succeed.