Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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.

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