Point of Sale (POS) systems (basically networked electronic cash registers) have been with us since the early 1970s. I recall our local Burger King having a PDP-8 under the counter for running their registers back in 1973. Around the same time my father was leading E.J. Korvettes’ evaluation of various POS systems and their eventual chain-wide rollout of NCR’s system. These systems were extremely complex by today’s standards, consisting of an in-store minicomputer and set of special purpose terminals that functioned as electronic cash registers. Another set of minicomputers sat back in IT, polling the in-store registers each night to get their sales data. Then the data was transferred to an IBM mainframe where it was processed as though it had come from Kimball Tags. As a child I’d spent many a day feeding the tags into a machine that read them and transferred the content to 80-column punch cards so they could be processed on the mainframe. It kept me busy, meaning away from wandering around randomly “reprogramming” the boards in various pieces of Unit Record Equipment like this sort machine.
I recall the skepticism about the use of minicomputers. Most IT people had no clue what a minicomputer was, and if they did they spoke derisively about how they might be good for niches like scientific computing but they had no place in “Data Processing”, as IT was then called. Point of Sale systems were one the minicomputer’s first beachheads in the world of “Data Processing”. They wouldn’t be minicomputer’s last of course, and by the mid-80s minicomputers were in use throughout the IT space. Super-Minis had even taken their place on the raised floor computer rooms (now known as Data Centers), shoving mainframes to the side for many new applications. Unix Servers, then Windows Servers, and now Linux Servers have also made their way into the Data Center, each time experiencing tremendous outcries from the IT cognoscenti about how unsuitable they were for “serious” business applications.
What happens out in the front lines telegraphs what is going to happen in the back office a few years down the road. PCs and PC-based servers soon took over the POS domain from minicomputers, just as they were taking over the departmental computing needs in (and usually in opposition to the policies of) large enterprises. Very small businesses started running accounting software on PCs, and soon medium-sized businesses were doing the same. Gradually PCs and PC-based Servers became the backbone of large business.
And so here we are with Tablets, and more generally natural user interface based computers, invading the fringes of business. The examples are everywhere, you just have to look. The example I used in my infamous rant to developers was based on real examples I have seen in retail. A friend of mine involved in the collaboration space is quite adamant about how mobile devices, and iPhones and iPads in particular, are rapidly spreading through the Information Worker space that has historically been the bastion of Windows PCs. And yet much of the IT cognoscenti is playing their expected part and denying that these kinds of technologies have a role in “serious” business applications. Well my fine reader I walked into a new coffee shop today and was greeted by the following picture. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”