IBM is working with major United States retail groups to develop a set of interface standards which could make the Network Computer a ubiquitous point of sale device.
The effort is being driven by Bob Dies, general manager of IBM's Network Computer Division, who says NCR (along with IBM, the provider of the bulk of existing point of sale devices in the US) and Sun Microsystems have also been invited in on the project. The interfaces will be written in Java. At the request of the retailers, they are initially to be sponsored as standards by the US National Retail Federation but Dies says IBM intends to drive them all the way to ISO status.
IBM has already converted some of its large retail customers to NCs as replacements for both green-screen terminals and PCs. But none, as yet, are using NCs at the point of sale.
"In the retail space, the problem isn't the NC itself," says Dies. "That's a no-brainer. It hooks up to a server, and we've got thousands of them installed. The problem in the retail space is all these crazy devices - the credit card scanners, the bar code scanners, the scales. It's the same thing when you go to a bank - it's the passbook printers and so on.
"The notion that in both cases all of the data is kept on a server is already there. The thing that's missing is the unique interfaces to all these devices. So in the retail space we hooked up with a number of US retail outlets - JC Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart - and I basically said, I'm willing to help write all this stuff, but I'd like to not write 73 versions and discover afterwards that everybody's incompatible with everybody else. To which they wholeheartedly agreed.
"So we're working with our largest retail customers to effectively unwind these interfaces and write them in Java so they run not just on our machines, but lots of others. We're going to do the same thing in banks, and let our customers help design things, so we come up with what the customer wants."
Creating interfaces in Java closes the loop with the Java smart card APIs announced several months ago - although Dies says most of the work behind JavaCard was carried out by IBM, rather than Sun's JavaSoft division, which has been marketing the API.
"We've had a smart card group working in Europe for two years now. It's to everyone's advantage to have a common set of APIs and that's why we volunteered our stuff. It didn't come from Sun, it came from IBM effectively. In the same way, about 60 days ago, we announced a whole bunch of major mobile NC standards in Japan. But it turns out that so often when you say Java, people immediately assume that you mean Sun."