Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Electronic voting machines still vulnerable, according to USA Today

Crazy that they're still messing with the same problems years after the first concerns were raised about the potential security vulnerabilities of electronic voting machines. But appearntly that's the case, according to this article:
Most of the electronic voting machines widely adopted since the disputed 2000 presidential election "pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state and local elections," a report out Tuesday concludes.

There are more than 120 security threats to the three most commonly purchased electronic voting systems, the study by the Brennan Center for Justice says. For what it calls the most comprehensive review of its kind, the New York City-based non-partisan think tank convened a task force of election officials, computer scientists and security experts to study e-voting vulnerabilities.

The study, which took more than a year to complete, examined optical scanners and touch-screen machines with and without paper trails. Together, the three systems account for 80% of the voting machines that will be used in this November's election.
That's pretty scary. The thought of anybody using a voting system that doesn't have a paper audit trail (or better, a voter-verified paper trail) is insane, and I don't see how it could be considered a viable voting technique.

Since I've written about this a number of times in the past, here are some relevant articles that show that... well... we haven't really made any progress yet :/

Consumers expected to spend $475 Billion at self-service kiosks this year

According to this interesting press release that I came across at Yahoo!, as American's we appear to be taking matters into our own hands more frequently when it comes to getting product information, printing coupons, and even paying for our purchases. At least, that's what research company IHL Consulting Group found when they did a survey of the use of self-service devices like interactive kiosks and self-checkout lanes in the US and Canadian markets this year:
North American consumers are on pace to spend over $475 billion at self-checkout lanes, ticketing kiosks and other self-service machines in 2006, an increase from $324 billion in 2005, reports a new research study conducted by IHL Consulting Group.

What's more, the revenue generated by self-service transactions should continue this pace of growth in the coming years, said Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group, an analyst firm and consultancy that serves retailers and retail technology vendors.

"We expect to see expenditures made at self-service kiosks to rise by about 51 percent this year and 33 percent in 2007," Buzek said, adding that demand for self-checkout systems should push the dollar value of transactions up near $1.2 trillion by 2009.

Source Technologies introduces competitor to IBM Anyplace Kiosk

According to this note at Kiosk Marketplace, Source Technologies, a company best known for its range of MICR printers and check printing technology, has been making increasingly aggressive overtures to the kiosk market for some time now, starting with a line of industrial kiosk hardware (that looked more like ATM machines), and later bolstering it with their own software offering.

Apparently recently they started a new all-in-one kiosk similar to the little POS-units that Radius sells, or perhaps something more powerful, like the IBM Anyplace Kiosk. I think that there's a lot of room for growth in the all-in-one kiosk market, though without any kind of specs or pictures to draw on, it's a little tough to say how the Source Tech machine is going to work out. As I've mentioned before, I like the IBM Anyplace Kiosk (and presumably other similar machines that follow the same design methodology for three primary reasons:
  • Lack of hardware consistency - A Dell is a Dell is a Dell, right? Wrong. In fact, buy more than a few (supposedly identical) systems from Dell at once, and take them apart. More than likely you'll find that the motherboards, CPUs, RAM chips and hard disks are all slightly different from one another. While this isn't really a problem most of the time, I know there have been cases where a particular combination of parts was much more failure prone than others, or more difficult to troubleshoot for some reason. Lower-volume, all-in-one solutions necessarily contain more custom parts than mass-produced PCs, but every copy of a particular all-in-one device will be practically identical. Plus, vendors typically commit to offering the same model for 3 years or more, with only minor changes made along the way (e.g. faster CPUs).
  • Not designed with self-service in mind - The thing that I like best about the all-in-one units (X40 aside, ironically) is that their manufacturers know that they'll be placed in hostile environments where they'll be kicked, punched, attacked with food and drink, and otherwise accosted. Of course, custom manufactured kiosks are designed to great tolerances as well, but too often they rely on a regular desktop PC inside, which most definitely was not built to these standards.
  • Too much reliance on the integrator - Between the two points above, a kiosk integrator has to take many precautions and tie up a lot of loose ends to harden a system to the point where it can be deployed to a public environment. Again, there are companies who do this every day, and have deployed thousands of units this way. But they have to manually check every single device, ensuring that cables between monitor, touch screen and any other peripherals are correct and secure, and that the computer is mounted in a way that it can be shipped securely without getting damaged. This becomes especially challenging when the underlying components (e.g. LCD monitors and touchscreen controllers) need to be changed due to supply chain issues.
Of course, all arguments have two sides, and there are some things to be cognizant of when considering an all-in-one unit, including:
  • Reliance on a single vendor for support and spare parts - Industry standard parts like CPU, RAM and hard disks are cheap and easy to come by, but if your all-in-one unit's motherboard is damaged by a power surge or physical trauma, you'll have to go back to your vendor as the sole supplier of spare parts. In addition to having only a single source of spare parts, you'll have to be content with the vendor's pricing policies, which may reflect their monopoly position -- especially in the latter part of the product lifecycle.
  • End of Life - Relying on a single manufacturer also means that you have to trust their product lifecycle schedules. They may say they're going to produce the same hardware for 3, 5, or 7 years (which good vendors will stick to), but if they stop, you're not exactly left with a lot of options.
  • Cost - All-in-one solutions are typically more expensive than a solution built with commodity parts. They contain custom hardware, they're produced in lower volumes, and they often use higher-end parts than commodity PCs, so of course they're going to cost more. While my experience has been that they make up for this with lower support costs, your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sony to sell gadgets from kiosk

According to this brief blurb in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sony is planning to sell some small electronic devices (including PSPs, digital cameras, Walkman players, games and DVDs) through what basically amount to advanced vending machines. Apparently the devices have already been rolled out at shopping centres in Georgia, Colorado and California, with other trials expected in the coming months. Also from the article:
Products are selected via a touch screen and payed for by credit card and a robotic arm with built in sensors then dispenses the goods, ensuring the shopper has received it before their card is debited.

The units were built by US company Zoom Systems using robotic technology from Japan and were designed to reflect Sony's corporate logo and image.

Indigo Books & Music investing in kiosks

Indigo Books & Music, Canada's largest bookseller, is expanding their web presence (to better compete with, and additionally "plans to make a 'major investment' in 'sexier, user-friendly" hardware and software at their kiosks, which are used by more than half of shoppers,'" according to this article at CANOE Money.

The company of about 6,300 employees also operates, an online retailer of books, gifts, music, videos, and DVDs. Interestingly, they claim that ever since the Internet generation became old enough to buy books, use of the in-store kiosks has gone up tremendously, to the point where that's the first (and sometimes only) thing that a certain segment of their customer base wants to use when coming into the store.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Morgan Beaumont claims 120,000 kiosks to be deployed to grocery stores

Today's press release from an overly-optimistic company who probably doesn't know what they're talking about comes from Morgan Beaumont, a "premier [provider] of Stored Value and Prepaid Card Solutions in the United States. The company has developed the SIRE Network(TM), a secure, reliable, point of sale (POS) and PC based software platform that connects retail merchants with multiple stored value/prepaid card processors and issuing banks, in addition to private transaction networks and IVR and CRM technology."

According to this press release, the company, "today announced it has signed an exclusive agreement with Competisys Corporation to provide prepaid cards from Discover® Network to the Mexican American Grocer's Association (MAGA) channel of over 120,000 grocery stores. As part of the agreement, all of the 120,000 MAGA stores that participate will also become members of the SIRE Network. Additionally, Competisys has signed an exclusive agreement with Morgan Beaumont to offer SIRE Network services, stored value cards and other financial services via their self service kiosks."

So 120,000 kiosks to be deployed to Mexican grocery stores. Right.

Aside from the insane infrastructure issues (everything from power to network connectivity -- trust me, we've been working in Latin America for a while), the very concept of deploying 120,000 of anything is simply a gigantic challenge. I don't know how they normally do their kiosk deals, but if you figure that an average kiosk only costs 1,000 -- which is probably a very low estimate -- we're still looking at a $120 million tab to get the machines deployed, quite possibly making this the largest kiosk network ever deployed.

Download-and-Burn movies getting closer

At least, according to Engadget. And hey, who wouldn't want to use one of these things (except perhaps an MPAA member, if he's still spooked about copy protection, etc.) But that's exactly what Engadget is talking about in their post, which is quite something:
Download-and-Burn might just become the new mantra of the MPAA yet. Recently, the studios dropped their asinine controversial demands to retrofit set-top DVD players and DVD-ROM drives with expensive watermark detection technology. Instead, the demand is now limited to new devices with enhanced features such as the ability to burn downloaded movies or support managed copy; not to your run-of-the mill living room DVD player. Under the proposal, these so-called "enhanced devices" would also have to incorporate HDCP on all digital outputs as well as CGMS-A on analog outs in an effort to curb piracy.
So aside from the fact that the MPAA will insist on breaking our content and owning the way in which we consume media, it may become slightly less expensive and more convenient to do so in the near future if these kiosks gain some traction.

Nike launches interactive signage program

Kiosk Marketplace tells us (in this article) that:
Digital View, provider of digital signage and digital media networks, and Pattison Outdoor Advertising, Canada's largest out-of-home media firm, are launching a unique interactive advertising experience for consumers. Shoppers in some of Canada's busiest malls are now able to choose which TV commercials they'd like to view during a special promotion, using their cell phones like remote controls.

The first client to sign up is Nike Canada, which kicked off this year’s world soccer championships blitz with a series of long-form TV spots featuring some of the planet's best-known soccer players. This groundbreaking digital signage was tested first in Toronto's Yorkdale Mall and is now running at Bramalea Town Centre, MontrĂ©al's Mall Champlain and MontrĂ©al Eaton Centre, as well as Vancouver's Oakridge Centre and Metropolis at Metrotown malls.
I've seen a good number of SMS-powered interactive devices lately, though up to this they've all been either big outdoor billboard projects like in Times Square, or else projects in Europe where SMS messaging has been hot for close to a decade now. It's getting harder to classify things as interactive kiosks or dynamic digital signs when these kinds of projects come out, but as we've been talking about for a long time, convergence between these two marketing techniques is inevitable given the kinds of sophisticated advertising and self-service projects retailers and others want to experiment with.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Movie burning kiosks coming to a store near you

At least, that's what a few blog articles I've come across lately would suggest. First comes this post from Blogging Stocks about Wal-Mart introducing DVD burning kiosks:
What if you were able to walk into Wal-Mart soon and copy some of your own footage or even TV shows onto a custom DVD or even an electronic device like a Sony PSP or Apple iPod with video? To fight slowing DVD sales and to give valuable shelf space to items with higher turnover, Hollywood Video appears to be in talks with Wal-Mart to place these "content kiosks" in some Wal-Mart stores.

The details are a little fuzzy, but it appears that Wal-Mart, by far the largest seller of DVDs with annual sales of $3.2 billion, could really be helping the DVD industry grow sales faster by forcing it to take a step into the future.
Granted, Wal-Mart briefly experimented with CD-burning kiosks in the past, and did not have great success with them (the project was eventually pulled). But that could have been for several reasons, including a tendency to do things in-house when they should have outsourced, and the fact that the introduction of the kiosks coincided with the rise of the iPod, which did a great deal to obviate the need for physical CDs.

The next post I saw came from Digital Lifestyle Magazine, who suggests that BestBuy may be planning a similar strategy, either to decrease the amount of shelf space taken by poor-selling titles, or to make way for new HD-DVD and BluRay discs that will start coming out this year:

Executives [at BestBuy] argued that installing these burning kiosks in major retail stores would help generate increased sales in an ever slowing $24 billion DVD market. Although most have noticed that the price of your average DVD has dropped dramatically, newer alternatives for obtaining movies such as digital downloads of films to PC’s, lap-tops, cell phones and even portable listening devices have shifted sales. Although these changes have been very profitable and less expensive for motion picture studios the change has meant a decline to those in the DVD business.

A main concern has actually been shelf space, the new kiosks would allow stores to perhaps restock their shelves full of more profitable goods, rather than old DVD’s collecting dust. A major obstacle that does remain is various licensing hurdles, which may infringe upon the appropriate usage of the video content. It is estimated that Wal-Mart, Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. Inc, represent nearly 50% of all home movie sales, with the proposed Kiosk solution that number has the potential to be increased even further.

The fact that video watching tends to be more socially-oriented than audio listening, and also that viewers (so far) prefer to be seated at home in a comfy chair or sofa watching a big screen would suggest that video-burning kiosks wouldn't meet the same kind of iPod-style challenges as the CD-burning kiosks did. Here's the original press release that started all the buzz.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Kiosk software startup partners with Starbucks...

... but for what? The article that I pointed to last week about Starbucks pulling its CD-burning kiosks sort of suggests that this partnership between Starbucks and Mod Systems (which I believe is a pretty way of saying that Starbucks will be buying stuff) isn't going to go anywhere. In fact, the article itself even suggests that:
Mod Systems recently replaced Hewlett-Packard Corp. in providing the technology behind Starbucks' CD-burning kiosks. The partnership comes at an awkward time, however. Recent reports indicate that Starbucks is removing music kiosks from all but a handful of stores.

Mod Systems may be well placed, however, as Starbucks re-evaluates its music strategy in light of the growing popularity of iPod and other digital music players. Mod Systems says it is testing technology to allow digital music downloads to such devices.
Not sure if I buy that or not yet, considering the amount of ambivalent press that the Starbucks CD-burning experiment has had, You can read the complete article here.