Tesco's Mobile Trial Opted For Android Because It Was <i>Less</i> Secure

In what may be a first in retail IT, the more-than-5,000-store Tesco chain chose the mobile platform it would experiment with based on a determination that it was the least secure. The trial is about a Wi-Fi system in each store that should map for customers the closest route between selected products. But the reason the chain opted to trial this system on Android is deliciously counter-intuitive.

The security issue cropped up because the chain wanted to do extensive beta testing with customers before offering the final version of the application to the world. Security policies with Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion's BlackBerry, among others, require that only tested and approved apps can be installed on their phones. Android's more lax application security process made it the more desirable platform.

"The service is only available publicly to Android phone owners at this time, because we don't want the app in its current state going into the public app stores. Only Android easily offers the ability to install apps from 'Unknown Sources,'" wrote Nick Lansley, who manages IT R&D projects at Tesco. Testers are being asked to "change a setting temporarily to allow non-marketplace apps on your phone to install it."

Lansley's note to prospective testers was wonderfully candid, in a way that I just can't see Wal-Mart or Macy's doing. "You are prepared to run an R&D app and accept no liability from us if we cause your phone problems, although it doesn't do anything more than require access to your Wi-Fi and location-based services on your phone. You accept that the app, being R&D, is a bit geeky, but you are prepared to fiddle and play with it and you accept the system, being R&D, may just not work from time to time," Lansley wrote. "Please note that we won't be rolling this out to customers in general for a while, because we have to think about how useful it's going to be. The system involves a lot of infrastructure installation in the stores, so we need to get all kinds of people involved in thinking about the customer experience. It would be awful if we did all this work but few customers really used it. We must also see how we would put the technology into our production applications and make it really easy for everyone to use. There's also the possibility that the infrastructure is not reliable right now. This project is in R&D for a good reason."

The idea of the service—referred to simply as in-store sat-nav—is for customers to build and share shopping lists, with the system then flagging the products on a digital map that "guides you round the store to pick up your products using the shortest route." The system has a goal of locating customers and products "within 3 meters."

"The idea of 'sat-nav' is to give a sense of where you are and how far it is to the product when you have a very large store like the one at Romford," Lansley said. "This is a low cost R&D project just to see if we can be better for customers. That's what R&D is for."