How Not To Beat Apple In In-Store Mobile POS

If you want a perfect snapshot of how dominant Apple has become for in-store mobile POS devices—and why—look no further than Hewlett Packard's mobile POS announcement on Thursday (Nov. 3): a payment-card sled that attaches to HP's new Slate 2 tablet. This is bound to be a tough sell—remember, HP has just killed off a tablet line in a very public fashion (even though that wasn't the Windows-based Slate line).

The HP tablet-and-sled combo together will be a hefty $1,200. Competing with Apple means HP will need to nail this product perfectly—right? Yes, that's what HP needed. But instead of offering the tablet and sled as a general-purpose in-store mobile POS, HP is positioning it largely as an add-on to HP's own POS systems. OK, that limits the market. So does the lack of a clear advantage over an iPad.

Dick Arnold, the director of worldwide marketing for HP’s global retail business unit, stressed that the key benefit of Windows will be its ability to integrate down the road, when retailers want to do functions more advanced than simple payments, such as Web interactions, detailed POS integration (including inventory updates) and controlling in-store digital signage. "There a very high premium on making sure it can interact with the retailer’s POS environment, to be seamless," Arnold said.

That's a fair point, but he then undermined that point when he declined to say that iPads wouldn't work fine with most retailers' systems, too. Being compatible is great, but for it to be a sales point, the point needs to be that your product is more compatible. If other systems will be just as good, that's not a differentiator.

Then there's the mag-stripe reader, which can work right out of the box in unencrypted mode. Wait, isn't that exactly what retailers don't want?

In fairness, it wouldn't make sense to ship a payment-card sled with a default encryption key already installed—it would just have to be replaced. But what message does it send to retailers when a major POS vendor makes it a point to mention that its mobile mag-stripe sled can work in unencrypted mode—the mode that's guaranteed to torpedo the retailer's PCI approval?

HP didn't have to design out that unencrypted mode, or even take special measures to disable it. But it's painful to see a POS vendor bullet-point a "feature" that target customers are sure not to want.

It's easy to overstate Apple's reputation for sweating the design details of its products. It's also naive to assume that just because Apple runs its own retail chain, it's guaranteed to have flawless insight into what retailers need. But if any other vendor wants to catch up to the iPOS juggernaut, they'd better at least know PCI.