Linux in the Retail Market

by Phil Hughes

In a past life, I worked on embedded systems for the retail market. These systems used all custom software, with a lot of custom hardware tossed in as well. This experience tuned me into the custom software/hardware market, and I continue to read about what is happening in it. In fact, the September 2003 issue of Retail Systems Reseller is the inspiration for this article.

Over the past few years, Retail Systems Reseller and other industry magazines have tended to support proprietary solutions, whether they were constructed in-house or built on top of Microsoft operating systems. The best explanation for their support is that older solutions tended to be in-house proprietary or built on top of a small real-time kernel. This situation was necessary, because a lot of functionality had to be crammed into a slow CPU with limited RAM.

As inexpensive CPUs became faster and RAM became larger, purchasing more software became cost-effective, because there now was space and speed to run less optimal solutions. In return, device drivers no longer had to be written for many common peripherals. The downside, of course, is the OS now had to be treated as a black box; previously, it was code that could be viewed and modified as needed.

Some vendors, IBM being one example, recognized the advantage of building point-of-sale systems based on Linux. Device drivers were included with these systems, and the source code was accessible. Unfortunately, industry trade magazines didn't seem get it.

Now, however, things are starting to change. The September Products to Watch section of Retail Systems Reseller contains two examples. First, the LC6000 Industrial Computer, by Logic Controls, is described as follows, "The LC6000 is based on an Intel-compatible x86 processor, so it can run many Windows and Linux-based applications." Assuming this statement isn't marketing hype, this is positive because this system is completely solid-state, including the flash disk. In other words, Logic isn't saying you only can boot your Linux CD here.

Although less dramatic, the second example is the Flex POS by Touch Dynamic. The description reads, "The unit ships with an internal floppy and an optional 3.5" hard drive with any operating system." The choice of the word any is a little strange, but it certainly sounds like Touch Dynamic has noticed choices are available.

Getting into This Market

Seeing this new Microsoft-free approach in a magazine like Retail Systems Reseller made me think about business opportunities for Linux in this market. Although writing a complete POS system is possible, doing so is a huge project. Besides that, some of these systems already exist. So, what other possibilities are there? Scanning the magazine further provided some inspiration.

The first idea comes from an ad for Ithaca printers. No mention of Linux is made, but the ad is for wireless receipt printers--they speak 802.11b. Some POS systems likely exist (in a restaurant, for example) with an assortment of wired printers that don't really address the needs of the business but with hardware that cannot support more printers or wireless printers. How about a Linux box with an 802.11b card that plugs into the POS printer port and does some intelligent printer traffic routing? You may not get rich off this system, but you probably could get your and Linux's foot in the door for a future conversion.

I continue scanning the magazine's pages, and I see an article titled "The Government Plays Market-Maker". First, the author discusses how retailers are dragging their feet on full-scale POS replacement because of the soft market, but then explains that some add-ons are being required because of government legislation. The most common piece of legislation is that many states require stores to provide a customer-accessible device that scans barcodes and displays product prices. This stipulation is made so stores can avoid individual product price labels. Providing this device, of course, requires a system that can access the price database of the current POS system. It seems Linux is game for that task. So, why not a Linux-based unit that allows customers to look up prices? While you're at it, be creative and have it display ads when not showing prices or even offer a coupon system.

Finally, I read an article titled "Post-Modern Scanning Draws VARs" that essentially is about the need for new scanning devices to handle 2-D barcodes. Shipping companies, such as UPS, are using them, and they also are appearing on drivers' licenses. These barcodes require newer software, as well as more CPU power, to be decoded than do traditional barcodes.

So, if you feel you have written enough computer games and want to see if you can make some money with Linux, I hope I have provided you with some ideas for projects. In each case, what you do now could be the ticket for getting Linux in the door in preparation for the next major POS upgrade.

Phil Hughes is the Publisher of Linux Journal.

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