Revealed: Retail Stores’ Handheld POS Device

February 4, 2010

While Apple Inc. was making news last November with the roll-out of a high-tech iPod touch point-of-sale (POS) system at its 277 retail stores, the company that actually designed and built the sleek device was content to lay low and not take any of the credit. Now their secret is out: It was southern California-based Infinite Peripherals (IPC) that developed that techno-shell that allows an iPod touch to process purchases so elegantly at Apple’s stores. The Linēa-pro allows store employees to quickly scan barcodes, read credit card magnetic stripes and accept customer signatures. An interview with a company executive and a hands-on test of the device reveals how the device was developed and is now being marketed.

View photos of the Linēa-pro and watch my hands-on video review of the device. Watch a short video snippet of the device in action at an Apple store.

The Linēa-pro is a handheld solution that consists of a barcode scanner, magstripe reader and a protective shell. It mates to the iPod touch with scanner/reader functions controlled by software running as an application on the touch. Data generated by the application can be stored locally or transmitted via the iPod touch to a Wi-Fi network.

IPC provides a software development kit (SDK) with the Linēa-pro so customers can access the scanner/reader functions from their own software application. For those without programming resources, IPC has partnerships with several development companies who have experience writing applications for the Linēa-pro, company officials say. (Touch2Systems, see update below.)

The Linēa-pro isn’t limited to POS applications, as used at the Apple stores. It can interact with software written for any type of industry: time/labor, asset tracking, inventory management, inspection/work flow, security, delivery, dispatch, hospitality, lab and medical. The applications are written and uploaded to the iPod touch just like software available from Apple’s App Store.

The long process of developing the Linēa-pro device was pieced together from several sources, and confirms that Apple provided guidance as the device was developed over a 14-month period.

IPC has been in the POS printer industry since the company was founded in 1993. They have marketed thermal, inkjet and impact printers, both stand-alone and imbedded printers in gasoline pumps, sales kiosks and gaming devices. In 2000 they added mobile devices to their product line-up, including smartphone cradles that incorporate receipt printers, barcode scanners and magstripe readers.

Their first mobile devices were based on the Palm, Treo and Handspring handheld devices, and included a magstripe reader for an airline application. By early-2008 IPC was marketing cradles to allow magstripe reading on Palm, Treo, H-P iPAQ and Blackberry devices. But IPC engineers recognized the potential of the iPod touch: compact, capable of running complex applications, with a touch-sensitive screen and equipped to use Wi-Fi.

At the Jan. 2008 National Retail Federation (NRF) conference in New York City, IPC staffers met with Apple’s retail team, walking the trade show floor with them and looking at POS solutions. Jeffrey Scott, IPC’s CEO, recalls saying to them, “I noticed you are using a competitors product in your stores?”

At the time, the Apple stores were using Symbol Technologies handheld computers running a POS application under the Windows Mobile operating system. The devices performed barcode scanning, magstripe reading and signature verification tasks, but were frequently criticized by store employees as being slow, prone to freezing, and requiring frequent reboots to maintain Wi-Fi connectivity. Apple had introduced the handhelds in 2005 as part of a plan to eliminate dedicated POS counters and the traditional cash register-based purchase procedures. Symbol was purchased by Motorola in 2006.

After discussions with Apple at the NRF convention, IPC’s engineers went to work, designing a new class of device that would take their POS products to a new level.

The development team came up with several iterations of a device that worked with an iPod touch. At each step, they shared their work with Apple’s retail team, and then made improvements based on Apple’s suggestions.

By early 2009 IPC’s engineers had advanced their prototype as far as possible, with the limitation that it couldn’t directly communicate with the iPod touch. Then in March Apple introduced Version 3.0 of the iPhone/iPod Touch software that enabled direct communications with external devices using the iPod touch’s 30-pin connector. “The sea parted,” Scott says, and within weeks IPC’s engineers reconfigured their prototype device to connect directly to the iPod touch through the connector.

While IPC engineers were toiling, other companies were working to perfect their own prototype POS devices for Apple’s consideration.

The final IPC design was “one of our most strategic,” Scott says. The company took the design to Apple’s retail team, who were immediately impressed with the device. “We got it right,” Scott says. He attributes the win to IPC’s culture. “We listen to the customer and develop accordingly,” he says. “Apple appreciated that.”

The final device was named the Linēa-pro, acknowledging the additional features it offered over the company’s existing Linēa scanner/reader device. The “Linēa” portion of the name means “line” in Spanish, as in “reading a line of data.”

Production began on the Linēa-pro in summer of 2009. By early fall, about 10,000 of the devices were on their way to Apple stores, in time for employee training classes and a late November 2009 launch at 270+ stores. Those who have seen a Linēa-pro up close at an Apple store will notice that IPC’s logo is missing, no doubt to maintain the device’s streamlined appearance.

Low-Key Marketing

Since then, the company has been busy listening to feedback from Apple on how they can enhance the device.

And what does Apple say about the Linēa-pro? “It’s like going from a tricycle to a Lamborghini,” was the company’s reaction, according to Scott. He concedes that much of the device’s advantages come from Apple’s own exceptionally-written POS software. “We’re just one piece of the puzzle,” he said modestly of IPC’s contribution.

Scott won’t confirm what business relationship IPC might have now with Apple beyond seller-buyer.

Meanwhile, the company has avoided a fast-track to publicize the device, while they focused their efforts on Apple as their top priority. They did attend the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year, “under the radar,” Scott said. “We’re not necessarily trying to do press,” he explained. Instead, “We’re trying to improve business efficiencies through technology,” reaching out to IPC’s existing customers and prospects to show off the Linēa-pro and its features.

Scott says the Linēa-pro is inherently flexible. “That’s the beauty of our design,” Scott said. Right now the device does barcode scanning and magstripe reading. The scanner is capable of reading multiple barcodes, in different formats, all in one shot. The reader can read all three of the industry-standard magnetic stripe tracks used by financial, transit, telecom and driver’s license agencies.

But IPC is looking beyond the current feature set, and is ready to accept customer challenges. “We’re like a small speedboat that is able to respond quickly based on market and customers requirements” Scott says. The company is ready and willing to incorporate other capabilities into the Linēa-pro design, such as a fingerprint reader for law enforcement. “We look forward to modifications,” Scott says. “We’re finding new niches all the time.”

What about the competition, including the just-announced Cube credit card reader? Scott says IPC doesn’t compete in the same space as the companies marketing the Cube and similar mobile POS devices. First, most of these new devices are still in prototype form, Scott notes. And more to the point, most of the other companies are really providing credit card processing services, with the device as a sideline.

POS software is available in Apple’s App Store, including Ring It Up Pro that uses the RedLaser code for scanning barcodes, and Simply Swipe It that uses a newly-announced MacAlly QuickSwipe device (in turn, based on a MagTek magstripe reader). Global Bay Mobile also markets software systems based on the Linēa-pro that access a new or existing backoffice system (video).

In contrast to these offerings, IPC is focused tightly on the hardware, allowing buyers a great deal of flexibility in the tasks that can be performed.

Hands-On Test

The Linēa-pro is a two-piece shell made of plastic that slips on to the iPod touch. One piece comprises the battery and all the electronics, and covers nearly the entire iPod. A smaller piece slips onto the top of the iPod and locks into place, protecting the barcode scanner electronics at the top.

The inside of the device is similarly covered with the gray rubbery material. Disassembled, there is only a small battery door inside, along with the 30-pin connector.

Once assembled around the iPod touch, the Linēa-pro feels very solid and capable of taking a beating. It’s curved and the sides taper, much like an iPhone to reduce its bulk and fit your hand. The dark gray exterior is smooth on the sides and top, and ribbed on the back. The surface of the Linēa-pro has a slight “tack” to it, not too slippery and not too grippy.

Dimensionally, the Linēa-pro adds just 0.28 inches to the width of an iPod touch, but 0.7 inches to the height and 0.42 inches to the thickness. Most of the height is attributable to the barcode scanner, and the depth to the battery and magstripe reader.

The Linēa-pro replicates the iPod touch power button on the top left, and the volume up-down buttons on the left side. A larger button on the right side can be controlled by software, usually for activating the barcode scanner. A large button on the back of the Linēa-pro near the bottom activates one to five yellow LEDs, indicating the battery level.

At the top end of the Linēa-pro is a window for the laser barcode scanner, and a bright yellow label warning about “Laser Radiation” hazards. On the bottom end is a mini-USB plug for recharging, and internally this mates with the 30-pin connector on the iPod touch.

The magstripe reader is contained under a fin on the back of the device. It’s configured for right-hand swiping, with the magnetic strip facing towards the user.

Scanner/Reader Tests

Infinite Peripherals loaded some demonstration software onto the Linēa-pro so I could test out the barcode scanner and magstripe reader. Naturally, I didn’t have access to Apple’s POS software for a test.

Like many tech devices, the software is as important as the hardware. That’s true for the Linēa-pro. The speed, accuracy and efficiency of any application used with the Linēa-pro can only be judged with a fully-operational device. Even so, I was able to develop some impressions about the Linēa-pro’s scanning and reading features.

First, the barcode scanner emits a very bright, narrow, horizontal beam of red laser light. At 12 inches, the beam is just over 12 inches wide.

Over a period of days, I used the Linēa-pro to scan every type of barcode I could find—and there are many. Grocery store UPC codes scanned easily, no matter the size, shape or orientation of the barcode. Products in flat boxes were scanned quickly, and so did product cans of various sizes. Wrinkled potato chip bags scanned without a problem. The demo software displayed the type of barcodes that were scanned, and I saw Code 39, Code 25, Code 128, EAN 13, EAN 15 and several others.

The real test, of course, was scanning Apple products. I tried several product boxes and they all scanned easily, including the multiple barcodes on an Apple iPhone representing the UPC, serial number and various electronics IDs. I also was able to scan the white-on-silver serial number barcode of a Cinema Display attached to the product.

The barcode scanner appears to read barcodes within about eight to 12 inches of the device, mostly dependent upon the size of the printed code. The smallest code barcode prints I found could be read out to about eight inches.

Barcode scanning is typically done by moving the laser beam perpendicular to the bars representing the code. But through testing, it appears the Linēa-pro will read codes that are rotated up to about 30 degrees from perpendicular. Likewise, the device will read the code when its up to about 30 degrees off-axis from the printed code.

Next I tested the magstripe reader. I swiped driver’s licenses, credit and debit cards, membership and loyalty cards with the Linēa-pro. I tried sliding the cards slow and sliding them fast. In all cases, they scanned correctly. It takes a little practice to slide the card squarely along the reader’s slot, but it’s not a difficult movement to learn.

My impression is that the Linēa-pro lives up to Apple’s selection for use in its stores. It looks good and operates perfectly. Paired with some killer software, it’s easy to see why Apple selected it for POS duties.

For other buyers, the Linēa-pro is an impressive hardware solution. Pairing the Linēa-pro with an iPod touch means you can run thousands of other specialty applications to extend it’s usefulness. Perhaps you need to track widget deliveries, but you also need to keep track of the weather for your delivery fleet. There’s an app for that—and a lot more from Apple’s App Store.

If you’re interested in purchasing the device, contact the company at: sales@ipcprint.com.

For more information, surf the IPC Web site, and the special Linēa-pro Web page. Download (pdf) a specifications product sheet about the Linēa-pro.

Update: The day after this article appeared, an article was posted on the Oracle: Retail Blog Web site revealing that David Francis was a consultant to Apple on the software for the this iPod touch POS. Francis said that Apple approached him in spring 2008 to work on the software, and that his company developed it with code from 360Commerce, an Oracle company. Oracle markets both front and back-end retail commerce systems through integrators, including InfoGain, for whom Francis also developed a separate POS application based on the iPod touch. Francis now has a new venture, Touch2Systems, to market POS systems based on the Linēa-pro.

Xsilva Systems Inc. introduced POS software for the Linēa-pro in September 2010.

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