|| The Perspective
Tuesday, 31 March 2009
At its simplest, self-service is any application that allows the end-user to perform a task with minimal supervision of the application owner.
In this context, the very first Web site was a self-service solution. These early Web sites contained nothing more than static information, but it enabled a consumer sitting at home to learn about a company’s products without tying up company staff. Nowadays, Web sites are infinitely more useful, and it makes sense for companies to extend that self-service utility to the public kiosk realm. But useful as Web sites are as a self-service tool, Web sites and touchscreen hardware in particular do not mix.
When the vast majority of Web sites were developed, the user in mind was sitting behind a standard computer complete with keyboard and mouse. Today, perhaps, those developers are designing sites for users to view on a cell phone. But the one user likely not on their minds is the one standing at a kiosk, trying to interact with the site via a touchscreen. After all, the typical user’s finger is probably more than 100 times wider than the mouse pointer the Web site was designed to use. This fact alone likely makes the Web site unusable in a touchscreen environment.
What should be kept in mind, however, is that the touchscreen interface is not the only means by which kiosk users can interact with Web sites.
Touchscreens are great for presenting uncluttered and simple interfaces that don’t require significant text input. When text input is required, a touchscreen application must use a virtual keyboard: a graphic representation displayed on the screen that requires a user to hunt and peck using a single finger. This can be frustrating and slow to the user but a reasonable compromise when the input is minimal.
But what about uses that require significant text input, such as job applications? If the goal is to maximize the number of applicants, using a touchscreen should be avoided. The caveat stands regardless of whether the form is Web-based.
Pairing web and kiosk
Most obviously, self-service devices and Web sites work well together when the content of the Web site already is aligned with the goals of the self-service project. Fitting examples include: product-ordering retail kiosks that allow users to order a product not in stock, gift registry kiosks, HR kiosks that use the company's existing 401k and benefits applications, web-banking kiosks and informational kiosks in tourist spots, churches, college campuses and company lobbies.
Fortunately, there are many kiosk software products that enable browser-based content to be efficiently deployed to a self-service kiosk. Kiosk software titles can provide many features, but the most important ones are those that replace the existing browser software, lock down the PC, control where a user can browse, provide alternative navigation toolbars, manage the user’s session to remove any trace of users when they leave, and interface with specialized kiosk hardware.
There are many reasons to go the software route instead of considering other, more extreme measures.
CONTENT. Why re-invent the wheel if the content already exists? Especially now, ROI is paramount in determining project viability. Rewriting the display layer of an existing application can cripple the ROI of the project. A visitor center kiosk is a good example. The local tourism bureau likely already has an existing Web site with links to all the local attractions. Why recreate that content and pay for it anew?
INTERFACES. Why confuse the user with a different interface? For a financial institution with online banking that their clients regularly use from home, a second user interface designed for a self-service kiosk will only confuse those clients and force them to learn two different interfaces that perform the same functions.
OPERATIONS. Maintaining a second user interface can cause operational problems. Often the organization responsible for the company’s Web site is not the same organization responsible for the self-service kiosk. With two interfaces, the business logic and Web site interface will be owned by the Web site organization. And they may not notify the kiosk organization when the business logic changes, thus breaking the self-service interface. Irate kiosk customers may be the first indication of the problem.
THIRD PARTIES. Applications from outside vendors can prevent the development of an alternate self-service user interface. HR self-service applications are a perfect example. Most companies deploy a third party HR solution, which they don’t control, so they are severely limited in how the user interface can be modified.
There is a middle way between the issues above and the extreme of forgoing the application of Web content to a self-service device. Kiosk software provides a solution that is convenient for the deployer, friendly to ROI and comparatively fast to put to use.
Tuesday, 16 September 2008
When you are planning a kiosk project, it's unlikely that the first thing that comes to mind is the operating system you will use to run the kiosks, unless you are the chief technology officer or the IT admin in charge of assisting with the project. The first thing you should consider is what the application should accomplish, what value it brings to the consumer and your business. But at some point when you know what it is going to do, you will start to discuss how it is going to do these things, and that is when the technology choices begin.
The choice of operating system may not matter at all to you, but it is good to be informed of the choices available and the pros and cons of each choice. This choice will become critical when you have issues such as integration with existing systems, ease of management by your internal team (if managed internally), security and cost. If you have a third party company managing the kiosks for you as part of an annual maintenance agreement, and it doesn't integrate directly with existing systems, then again, this may not matter to you and you should go with what that vendor is most familiar with and capable of managing efficiently.
As in the world of home and business desktop computers, there are a few main contenders in the kiosk marketplace: Microsoft Windows, Linux and yes... sometimes (but rarely) Apple. Each with varying flavors, customized versions or overlaying shell applications.
Just as in the rest of the world, my guess would be that most public kiosks run on a flavor of Windows. However, most kiosk deployers would never use only basic Windows security methods to lock down the system or provide application maintenance and monitoring. Most kiosks running Windows use it as the base operating system (OS), and apply another OS over top of it (Shell) to create an environment tailored to the special kiosk needs. Also, it should be stated that often, kiosks run on Windows Embedded, which is a scaled back version of XP that is much cheaper to license and doesn't include a lot of consumer-oriented overhead. This version of XP is pretty stable and can be tailored to different industries. Windows and most of their Shell operating systems have a remote desktop feature that enables IT admins to work with the kiosks, much like they would any other Windows-based server or desktop computer. Leveraging the same IT staff for system management of your kiosks can make a lot of sense.
There is also Windows CE for kiosks, which I've never liked. Like Linux, it can have a small footprint, but it is also so restrictive for most software developers that it often is only a good idea for basic kiosk content. This traditionally mobile phone platform seems too lightweight for most flashy or interactive applications.
Examples of companies that use Windows-based platforms include:
While Linux-based kiosks may be a bit more stable and less likely to be hacked, that is always based on the assumption that your IT administrator is talented. That is why so many Windows systems get hacked or are poorly implemented: So many systems are managed by inexperienced IT staff. Linux by nature takes a greater understanding to implement and manage by "true believer geeks" which means that they often have been meticulous in looking at all of the patches, and best security practices. Not always (but often) this is the case.
Often with a Linux-based kiosk OS, they are pretty easy to implement and don't actually require a lot of geek knowledge. Some is helpful, but not required. Only when you start doing a lot of custom work or integration with third-party components, hardware, etc., would it be necessary. If you are a "true believer geek" you could potentially use an open source Linux operating system straight up... but in my opinion you'd be reinventing the wheel and would spend much time building what is already built, and frankly would make as much sense as using Windows by itself. Linux also has an "embedded" version and, frankly, often has a smaller footprint than Windows.
An example of a company that uses a Linux-based platform:
I've seen a few Mac-based kiosks such as one at the NYC WTC memorial, but not many others. Now that Mac is a Linux-based computer OS, I could see this being a decent platform for kiosks as long as you program for this type of environment. Perhaps we'll see more Mac kiosks in the future.
WKiosk by App4Mac
Kiosks / Digital signage: Yes, sometimes the same operating system can be used for digital signage or kiosks... but digital signage content is often "scheduled" content — meaning it is remotely managed to play some content at different times of day, day of week, holidays, etc. In this case, a Kiosk OS usually doesn't have this feature built in, as most kiosks do not require scheduling. Watch for an upcoming article on digital signage operating systems.
Final thoughts: Does it really matter in your kiosk? Content is still king and can be OS agnostic such as Flash, video, HTML, etc. It matters most when it comes to who will manage the systems going forward and what expertise they bring to the team. It may also matter if the people writing the software need it to work with some Windows-based tools like IE, ActiveX, .NET, or other Windows-specific technology. Otherwise, you probably could deploy content to either platform, but you want to make this "architecture" decision BEFORE you begin building the software.
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Has this ever happened to you?
You walk into a store or a business and see on a display counter or lobby desk a dilapidated PC sitting forlornly, unused and unappreciated, only to realize the poor PC is intended to provide self-service?
Or perhaps instead it is a beautifully branded specialty kiosk, but with a screen that is either dead, showing the Windows desktop or — having been hacked — is displaying something entirely inappropriate?
Both are classic self-service failures, and I always wonder what circumstances transpired to cause these outcomes. Deep down inside, I also wonder whether the outcome would have been different had I been involved in the project.
I like to think the answer is always a resounding "Yes!," but sometimes it isn't that simple.
What is clear is that failed self-service projects are, by definition, very public and highly visible disasters for our industry. Everyone who comes into that store or business sees the failure. The self-service market is growing rapidly and is remarkably well-accepted by the general public, so I don't believe the occasional project failure is overly threatening to the health of the industry. However, I do believe the industry could be even further along its penetration curve if there were more successful projects.
The three-legged stool
There are many ways that a project can fail. Perhaps the most obvious is a poorly designed application. However, I will address two others: Hardware and kiosk system software.
When describing a successful project to a new deployer, I often use the analogy of a three-legged stool. The three legs are the software application, the hardware and the kiosk system software.
Without all three legs, the stool will topple.
The software application leg is almost always present because this leg typically is what drove creation of the project in the first place. Without an application, there is no project. It may be a poorly designed application, but at least it exists.
The hardware leg is the physical manifestation of the project and generally takes the form of standard kiosk-industry components and perhaps a company-branded OEM enclosure. Sometimes, but not very often, a standard PC with perhaps a touchscreen display is appropriate. Due to the capital-intensive nature of kiosk hardware, this leg too often is compromised. This can cause the kiosk to be used less than it theoretically could be, or in the worst case, be totally unuseable.
The kiosk system software is the most likely leg to be missing because it generally is invisible to the user, so deployers either think the software is unnecessary or aren't aware it exists.
What is kiosk system software? It is a software layer that locks down the computer and prevents users from going places they shouldn't. It can perform usage logging, which reports how often the application is being used, and remote monitoring, which checks that the kiosk is always up and running without error. In short, it is what ensures the software application is always available to the user.
If the deployer develops the project from the perspective of the user, he may miss the need for system software entirely. Or, a deployer may decide he can develop a partial homegrown solution such as using OS system policies to lock down the computer. Sometimes, the software application is developed to also provide kiosk system software functionality; however, that requires very specialized knowledge and experience, and with many self-service applications being browser-based, it is very difficult to combine the two software legs of the stool.
Project on the rebound
We get many desperate phone calls after a project has been deployed.
Generally, either the hardware leg or the kiosk system software leg of the stool is missing. Sometimes, both legs are missing. Hardware vendors know that one of two outcomes will occur when the hardware leg is missing: The deployer eventually will find the money to invest in hardware, or the project will be cancelled as a failure. The former is not ideal, but at least the proper hardware eventually is purchased. The latter is the true tragedy because the opportunity has been lost and how long will it be before that organization tries again?
Because the kiosk system software leg is not as capital intensive as hardware, generally as soon as the light bulb turns on in the deployer's head, the problem is resolved.
Unfortunately, sometimes the light bulb never turns on.
A call to action
What can be done? Education will go a long way. Both hardware and software vendors need to ensure that their clients fully understand the need for all three legs of the stool: Application, hardware and system software. I know that I am guilty of occasionally focusing too much on the software aspect of a project, but it isn't done purposely. Often a deployer will contact me, but they are talking to me for my software expertise. They don't necessarily want to talk to me about hardware, and sometimes that is where the discussion ends.
As an industry, we need to concentrate on keeping the discussion going.
James Kruper is the president of Analytical Design Solutions Inc., one of the association's vendor members. Check out his previous column, which was published in April: Self-service and digital signage can co-exist.
Monday, 24 September 2007
Lief Larson is a media technologist residing in Minneapolis. He is also the founder and former editor-in-chief of Kiosk magazine, the forerunner of Self-Service World magazine.
The concept of “self-service 2.0” is a forward-thinking vision for the possible interactive and visual displays of tomorrow, based on technology that exists today.
Kiosk and self-service technology is evolving. Over the next 12 months to 24 months the industry likely will experience a turning point for new technologies and applications that add a new level of convenience and accessibility to people’s lives — think: thin client, RFID, kiosk/digital display convergence, data transport, customer sensing and other tools.
Here’s a look at where the technology may be headed:
For years, those in the kiosk realm have predicted the advent of thin client/small form factor devices, yet boxy terminals continue their prevalence. A peek around the corner may see software that primarily resided on kiosk hardware slowly disappearing in favor of Web-based, software-as-service platforms. In this scenario, the terminal only needs to be able to connect to the Web and to a limited number of local software applications, such as drivers for hardware add-ons like credit card readers and printers.
The advantages of thin client are lower hardware costs and less chance for downtime — fewer parts mean less probability of failure. What hardware remains in the kiosk enclosure will be small and stable. Look for ultra-compact embedded hardware such as mini/pico-ITX and panel PCs in 17 inches to 22 inches for under $999 to blaze trails in this area.
The kiosk terminal (interactive) and digital signage (non-interactive) will combine. Previously at a kiosk terminal users would navigate and control it with interface tools, whereas a digital sign simply would display information without any user control or interactivity. An emerging trend in digital displays allows users to immerse themselves in the experience by interacting with digital signage through user triggers such as multitouch screens, cell phones and RFID.
Kiosk and digital signage company Nanonation, for example, has provided cutting-edge applications for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Umpqua Bank.
Brian Ardinger, Nanonation’s senior vice president of marketing, said the key is to not interrupt the customer experience, but to enhance the environment with information, images and intuitive systems. “By giving customers access to the information and marketing tools necessary when they ask for it or when they are naturally interacting with something is more powerful than hoping a person sees the right loop at the right time.”
Self-Service 2.0 Applications
• At self-service kiosks, concert-goers use USB sticks to buy, download and take home live recordings of the event after the show. Although this technology has been around for years, hundreds of thousands of people now carry USB sticks; they have become the single most popular means of physically transporting data files. The music group Barenaked Ladies have been selling DRM-free concert music for USB sticks. Thumb drives and mobile media memory sticks soon also may allow customers to take information away from environments such as retail stores.
• Sequoia Media Group launched myMovieMaker, a service now available at Wal-Mart stores that instantly transforms consumer digital photos into personalized DVD movies. The service uses Hollywood-style effects and themed storyboards to empower customers with professional movie production. It is likely that soon we will see advanced kiosk functionalities that address marketplace trends, such as developing video for sites like YouTube and customizing large-ticket purchases such as cars and furniture.
• French video rental giant CPFK has developed the Moovyplay system to rent movies for 30 days using a portable hard drive. A customer loads up the drive at an in-store kiosk, then plugs it into a docking station connected to his TV set. The first-generation drives, which are about the size of a BlackBerry device, can store up to 14GB of data, enough to hold about 40 movies at DVD quality. Users pay for the movies with a prepaid card, and revenue is split between the studios and the retailer. Household pipelines are bandwidth-limited for high-definition file sizes, which may present opportunities for kiosks to help put file transfers into the hands of consumers through large file transport devices. Is anyone else scared by the word “teraflop”?
• Freedom Shopping is a state-of-the-art self-checkout retail kiosk that uses RFID technology for speedy checkouts. There is no learning curve for the shopper — simply approach the kiosk with the items to check-out and a helpful voice guides the shopper through an effortless transaction. We have just reached the true opportunity of RFID in self-service. Expect dozens of new test applications that work through RFID to roll out over the next 18 months.
• LocaModa is developing technology that works with self-service kiosks and other out-of-home networks such as Wi-Fi hotspots, narrowcast digital signage and IP-based entertainment networks (from jukeboxes to cinemas) that can be leveraged to provide interactivity, presence and commerce for mobile consumers. The next generation self-service movement calls for cell phones and connected PDAs to act as remote controls for calling up information.
• Rogers Wireless, a leading telecom communications company in Canada, is using in-store kiosks that act as an extension of the sales force, educating and captivating customers and increasing potential sales opportunities. The interactive touchscreens, working in tandem with motion-sensing technology, inform consumers about specific products of interest to them. Whether trying to determine when a customer is near your self-service terminal or digital display, or triggering applications, sensing technology offers a huge chance to intuitively engage customers at the moment of opportunity.
Monday, 10 September 2007
The last several years have witnessed an explosion in emerging technology such as mobile phones, online video, rich Internet applications and social computing applications (blogs, MySpace, Second Life). But the in-person self-service industry hasn’t kept up with the pace of innovation in other channels.
Poor kiosk usability keeps firms focused on the basics and vendors stifle innovation by acquiescing to client demands. There are few new software applications, and only a small number of stand-out kiosks dot the sea of uninspiring physical enclosures. As a result, in-person self-service experiences leave much to be desired — and in tomorrow’s world, mediocre customer experiences just won’t cut it.
So what does the future of in-person self-service look like? As the focus shifts from the self-service kiosk to the self-empowered customer, in-person self-service will become device-agnostic. Look for technologies such as RFID, mobile phone cameras, wearable computing, Wi-Fi and WiMAX to integrate with one another to provide the customer with the ability to gather information or process transactions that will be based less on physical hardware and more on helping users achieve their goals. In short, the user experience will hog the spotlight.
Software applications will become more personal: They will understand contextual information, incorporate consumers’ personal devices, bridge offline and online experiences, and embrace consumers’ desire to connect with each other. For example:
- When Nike launched its Nike ID custom sneakers, it worked with interactive agency R/GA to create a 22-story interactive billboard in Times Square that invited passersby to configure their own sneakers through their mobile phones — and then displayed the results for all of Times Square to see. A code sent back to the users’ phones allowed them to log on to the Nike ID Web site in order to view and purchase their masterpieces.
- Microsoft Surface is a tabletop-embedded display that allows users to seamlessly interact with online content and personal physical objects such as cameras and cell phones through its slick, multiuser touchscreen interface.
- At the National Retail Federation’s 2007 conference, interactive agency IconNicholson demonstrated a digital dressing room that allows shoppers in physical retail stores to solicit their friends’ opinions over the Internet when trying on clothes.
In the future, hardware elements will become more engaging. Large-scale displays will enable groups of users to consume and interact with information; new display surfaces will encourage playful interactions; and devices will merge with the environment to create more integrated experiences. For example:
- For Virgin’s Megastore in Times Square GestureTek used a combination of overhead projectors, mirrors and cameras to develop an interactive floor display that users can manipulate by stepping on different areas of the projection.
- FogScreen and Netkey joined forces to create an interactive fog display that can be installed in the middle of any large room. Users can draw on the “screen” or select interface elements through physical gestures, and then walk right through the display.
- The Verizon Experience store — another concept designed and developed by R/GA — seamlessly integrates more than 70 interactive touchscreens into the architecture and interior design of the 5,000 square foot retail location.
What do these changes mean? First, savvy marketing execs won’t hesitate to take their business to proven customer experience leaders, so self-service hardware and software vendors must embrace the user-centered methods and tools of the design world or risk losing work to interactive agencies that use these methods. Second, as future in-person self-service deployments more closely marry technology with environmental design, architecture and commercial interior design experts will become the next groups of superstars. And perhaps most importantly, consumers can look forward to more engaging and meaningful self-service interactions, which will translate into improved efficiencies and increased revenues for businesses.
The writer is a principal analyst for Forrester Research.
Monday, 02 July 2007
Editor’s note: The writer is executive vice president of BroadSign International.
The two operating systems most widely used for digital signage networks are Windows and Linux. The purpose of this article is to help you get an idea of the advantages and the total cost of ownership of both in order to make an informed decision about choosing an OS for your digital signage network.
Many startup network operators, trying to minimize their upfront investment burden, choose Linux because they don’t have to pay for the license. Some of them discover later that the resulting cost of running Linux is not necessarily lower than that of using Windows.
When is Linux the right choice for your network? What are the real strengths and weaknesses of each OS?
In terms of functionality, the two operating systems are essentially equal. The common perception, however, is that Linux is "free", or cheaper to operate than Windows. Here are some thoughts on the subject that we have summarized based on our field experience and discussions with clients.
Microsoft Owns Windows. Who Owns Linux?
Microsoft clearly dominates the market. A new Windows version appears every 2-5 years. You do have to pay for a Windows license and the fee depends on the version, i.e., XP Professional, XP Embedded, Server 2003 or Vista.
Linux, on the other hand, has no central owner and most of its components are free (as in: freedom to copy, modify, and distribute) software. This allows many amateur enthusiasts, technology companies, and non-profit organizations to extend and publish their own Linux distributions. Some of the most well-known distributions are Fedora Core/Red Hat, SuSe/Novell, and Debian/Ubuntu.
Each one of the major Linux distributions has a free version, however in this case support is usually limited to what the community can provide through online forums, and mailing lists. Some providers offer special enterprise versions for a fee that covers direct support from the vendor, and others offer support as an on-demand service.
Is Linux Truly Free?
The zero cost of licensing for free Linux distributions is often the most attractive aspect of this operating system choice, especially for large digital signage networks. But this may be misleading, as licensing fee is only part of the overall expenses that you have to project.
The most commonly overlooked cost related to deploying a network of Linux players is that of hardware support. In fact, hardware support service providers are the market to which enterprise Linux distributors are catering. All enterprise versions come with a list of officially supported hardware, and a support schedule (e.g. forward compatible for five years). This is similar to what Microsoft has been doing with new releases of Windows for well over a decade.
Such support is not usually available with the free versions, though notably the Ubuntu Linux distribution comes with a guarantee of forward compatibility for five years. This is why we at BroadSign have standardized our Linux offerings around this distribution.
However, in order to fix problems and bugs you may encounter in a free Linux distribution, you have to either wait until they are resolved by the open-source community, or invest (sometimes a lot) into custom development.
Standardizing on a Playback PC Configuration
Windows versus Linux has been one of the longest-standing debates among IT specialists. They argue about which system is more stable, more secure, or yields higher performance. We have discovered that there are no inherent overwhelming advantages in any of the two operating systems. The stability, security and efficiency of a system really depend on which environment your IT team is more proficient in: Linux or Windows.
One of the grave mistakes is to select a hardware platform and an operating system separately. Another one is not to test the selected hardware/OS combination for performance and endurance.
Most device drivers have been tuned and tested for standard desktop uses, not for usage in an appliance-style configuration. It is therefore important to test many configurations before standardizing on a playback PC.
If Content is King, then the Operating System is the Kingdom
Now in terms of content playback functionality, Windows Media is a major factor to consider when choosing between Windows and Linux for digital signage. The vast majority of digital signage software packages use Windows Media Player as their playback engine. This has the benefit of leveraging any Windows Media-specific hardware acceleration, and being able to play all the media types that are supported by Window Media Player.
There are downsides to Windows Media Player as well. The most obvious one is it only runs on Windows. One that is less noticeable is that it does not come standard with MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, which means that you must acquire licenses for these codecs (media formats) from an independent vendor, unless you plan on only using WMV and MPEG-1. These, among other reasons, are why here at BroadSign we developed our own playback engine that is independent of Windows Media Player. All the codecs we support (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4) come included with our software, and are the industry leading standard formats. If you need to play Windows Media Video, we can run this in our proprietary player on Windows as well, because in this specific case we will use Windows Media Player.
In all other cases BroadSign Player can run both on Windows and on Linux platforms.
Total Cost of Hardware Ownership
One of the biggest advantages of the Windows operating system is that it supports all the newest hardware. Because of market pressures, hardware manufacturers always develop device drivers for Windows. While some provide them for Linux, not all of many different distributions of Linux are covered.
Driver support in Linux is not really a problem for PC components that are in widespread usage, or that are a little older. The DIY-and-share philosophy of the Linux community and increased investments by corporations integrating Linux into their enterprise means that somebody in the world will eventually fix the problem and everyone will benefit. The shortcoming here is that you may have to wait until you get the required driver.
Another issue for hardware on Linux is that some hardware components are developed exclusively for Windows. An example of this is the WinModem (aka SoftModem). This modem is much less expensive than a hardware modem because it replaced the DSP chip with DSP software that runs on the PC’s CPU; software that is written by the vendor exclusively for Windows. This trend seems to be spreading into the video card market, as market leaders like Nvidia and ATI are developing extensions specifically for Windows Media.
The above factors may increase the total cost of hardware ownership for Linux users.
From a digital signage operations perspective, there are more things in common between Linux and Windows than there are differences. What is important is that you select your hardware in conjunction with your operating system and digital signage software. While Windows has an upfront licensing cost, its costs are fixed and predictable. Linux has the potential of a lower total cost of ownership, but much investment must go into the expertise for selecting the hardware platform, otherwise costs can balloon out of control.
In the end, regardless of the operating system you select, the most important determinant of the total cost of ownership is the competence of the team behind selecting and configuring your playback platform, as well as that of the support team.
There is no magic bullet that will let you dramatically cut costs if you choose Linux. If you don’t already have a Linux-savvy IT department, any cost saving on the license fee will backfire with the increased cost of training or hiring qualified people.
Tuesday, 05 September 2006
As the self-service industry grows, kiosks will be called to serve a wide variety of vertical and horizontal markets. While kiosk interfaces develop in myriad ways, browser-based applications are still appropriate in many deployments.
Browser-based content is any application that can be displayed using an Internet browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. This can include simple HTML, Java applications, videos, or any application that runs on third-party snap-ins like Flash.
You may be surprised at what will run in a browser. While not necessarily ideal for kiosk use, most Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint run in Internet Explorer.
Most new applications are browser-based for several reasons.
Most are for a company’s Web site or are in some way integrated with it, and browser-based applications solve many system administration and support headaches.
A typical client/server application requires that client software be installed on the user’s computer, and that requires that the installation process be able to handle differences in operating system versions and hardware capabilities. Also, the installation of one application can sometimes break an existing application.
All of these issues increase helpdesk support costs. If the application is browser-based and installed on the company’s intranet, installation and configuration headaches are reduced because a browser is all that’s required.
With so many browser-based applications, it is only natural that some will be deployed on a kiosk. So why not rewrite the application using a kiosk-specific development platform? Because it's not always possible.
Some browser-based applications are developed by third parties, and you don’t control the source code. The human resource market is a perfect example.
Dozens of browser-based HR self-service vendors are out in the marketplace. They deploy their software on the end-user company’s server or using the ASP model on their own server. In either case, the end-user company has no access to the source code.
Most common, however, is when a company develops a useful and resource-rich Web site before it realizes its ROI would be enhanced if users other than pure Internet users could access their site.
The retail market is a great example. Many retail companies have excellent Web sites that would provide value to their in-store clients via a self-service kiosk. The cost to develop a parallel application solely for kiosk use would be prohibitive. Government and banking/credit union markets also have excellent Web resources that make sense to deploy to kiosks.
Browser-based development tends to cost less because the development uses industry-standard Web-based tools that a large pool of developers already know how to use.
Browser-based applications also provide more flexibility in terms of where the application runs. High-bandwidth static content can easily be hosted on the kiosk, while low-bandwidth dynamic content can be hosted on a centralized server.
The rapid adoption of service-oriented architecture, which at its core uses Internet-based technologies, is very easy to implement within a browser-based application.
A major difference between a typical Web application and a browser-based kiosk application is the length of time the browser is running. A kiosk browser runs months on end, unlike a quick open-and-close Internet browser. That difference raises the bar for quality. A poorly-written application or plug-in that crashes often or leaks memory is only an annoyance to an Internet user. On a kiosk, those issues are crises.
An easy way to ruin a kiosk project is to match the wrong hardware configuration with a browser-based application. In dual-use applications: i.e., Internet/intranet and kiosk, it is highly unlikely that the application will be useable in a pure touchscreen environment. In that case, provide the kiosk user with the same tools (a mouse and keyboard) used for the desktop version.
When the browser-based application is designed properly, there are no issues with deploying a touchscreen-only kiosk. And if it makes sense from a business point of view, then the same application can be deployed to the Internet/intranet.
Browser kiosk software
Just because a kiosk application can be developed as a browser-based application using industry-standard Web-development tools does not exempt the kiosk from requiring specialized kiosk software. At a minimum, kiosk software is required to:
·lockdown the OS, browser and desktop
·elegantly handle browser errors
·manage the user’s session
More likely, kiosk software also will need to:
·manage attract-screen sequencing
·manage second-monitor content
·interface with specialized kiosk hardware like security mats, proximity switches, barcode readers and magnetic-stripe readers
·provide custom toolbars
·collect usage statistics
·monitor kiosk hardware
·Communicate with a centralized management server
The demand to deploy browser-based applications within the self-service space will only grow.