With a show the scale of NRF there is no shortage of topics to address, so our focus will be on mobile solutions that struck us as particularly unique or crafty. The broad themes were largely an extension of topics introduced over the last couple of years: The "connected" and "in-control" customer; seamless "omni-channel" experiences; two-way "sharing" of information. While there clearly are retail visionaries who are daring and "get it" – like Cole Haan and the access they are providing their customers to in-store inventory or Outfittery, with its innovative focus on personalized curation - there seems to still be a lot of unsubstantiated noise. Among the IT meta-trends of big data, analytics and IoT, the retail sector is - surprisingly - behind when compared to other industries. While there is a lot of data being collected and analysis conducted, deriving meaningful value remains a challenge to most. From a purely mobile perspective, some of the dominant themes centered on mobile payments, the continued mobile platform wars and the shifting competitive landscape.
Mobile payments remain a central theme to NRF, especially as the push for EMV continues and OEMS are moving to adopt systems that integrate chip and pin readers. Verifone, the leading mobile payment and POS solutions provider in North America has taken a modular approach that is both device- and platform-agnostic, simplifying the certification process and enabling the company to partner with a wide array of mobile OEMs such as Samsung and Apple and leaving the mobile question in the hands of the retailer. Given the multitude of platforms that are increasingly becoming the norm in enterprise and in front-of-store retail and the shortening lifecycle for deployed devices, this provides Verifone much-needed flexibility to remain at the forefront of mobile payment solutions. From Verifone’s perspective what was also interesting and unique was its continued shift towards software and services with its Secure Commerce Architecture the most impactful for retailers. This solution provides a point to point encryption approach that directly transmits card data to the processor without touching the retailer’s POS system. At the other end of the mobile payments spectrum, Panasonic has introduced one of the first fully integrated mPOS devices in the Toughpad FZ-R1, which combines a 7” all-in-one tablet running full Windows 8.1 with a dedicated PCI compliant mobile payment element supporting chip and pin and with an encrypted mag stripe option in a semi-rugged casing. While the price point of the device will be a challenge for Panasonic, this does provide them with a clear differentiation and inroads into other segments beyond quick serve restaurants.
Another dominant theme that permeated the convention is the continuation of the mobile platform wars in retail at all levels. Mobile strategies by retailers over the past several years have favored Apple’s iOS powered devices and more recently Android-based smartphones and tablets supporting a variety of ‘customer facing’ applications. Rugged handheld devices, prominent for scan-intensive inventory management applications, suffered this shift in focus and were further marginalized by Microsoft’s inability to provide an adequate and timely transition strategy to next generation platforms for these devices. While the legacy Windows Mobile 6.x/Embedded CE platforms remain perfectly suitable for many of the applications they are supporting, especially for more keyboard-centric solutions such as those prevalent in the warehouse. However, when it comes to more touch-centric devices, these platforms really do not stack up with iOS and Android. A blurry OS strategy evolved with rugged OEMs shifting focus towards Android. While Android has faced an uphill battle in the enterprise and especially on rugged devices – issues relating to persistent wireless connectivity a frequent frustration among end users – 2014 represented somewhat of a breakthrough year for rugged Android handheld devices in the retail sector, especially in North America. ISV support of Android was reaching critical mass, enterprise support on a broad or horizontal level was improving and in Home Depot the first benchmark account emerged. We expect that momentum to continue into 2015. While Windows Embedded Handheld 8 was scrapped almost as quickly as it was introduced, 8.1 showed some promise. However with only Panasonic and Bluebird introducing devices, options remain limited. Honeywell appears to also be throwing its hat in the ring with a WEH8.1 device slotted for Q2 2015. However, the sense that we got was that there would be another round of “wait and see” on the Microsoft front with vendors and end users pointing to Windows 10. Make no mistake, there is a vested interest among several accounts – especially in North America – for a strong Microsoft option for rugged handheld devices. It is just taking a lot longer to materialize.
An interesting wrinkle in the OS/architecture debate for handheld devices was introduced by BSQUARE with its MobileV reference platform. MobileV is a complete hardware and software reference solution based on Intel architecture and Windows Embedded 8.1. The software enables screen resolutions compatible with displays ranging from 3.5” and up. In other words x86 and big Windows on a handheld device. Together with partner AAVA, a Finnish mobile device manufacturer, they presented a 5” handheld/tablet and 7” tablet based on MobileV. There has been growing discussion and interest in this option in the market. However, from a BOM and power performance perspective, it will be a challenge for solutions and applications traditionally supported by rugged handheld devices today and will likely take more time to be viable outside of select niche use cases.
The overall competitive landscape within retail is shifting, as merged companies seek to realign their brand and established firms look to take on a more direct relationship with end-users. For the former, Zebra is a prime example, following its headline-grabbing acquisition of Motorola Solutions’ enterprise business in 2014. Traditionally a back-of-store company, Zebra is putting in significant effort and funding to establish a more customer-facing retail presence, not only with the Motorola device portfolio, but in shop floor solutions that leverages its Zatar IoT platform. While futuristic and eye-catching, these technologies will require considerable consumer opt-in to really take off in a meaningful way. However, their offerings of in-store analytics to measure foot traffic and dwell time fit squarely into a growing market that is seeing competition from all sides, including Samsung and AT&T. Samsung could prove to be a serious contender as it has increasingly focused its attention to enterprise in wake of considerable contraction from its consumer devices. The firm’s brand recognition, strengthening Android security and broad retail partnership portfolio should expose Samsung to increased retail opportunity.
with David Krebs, EVP