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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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Otto February 5, 2010 at 0800

This will *never* get any traction.

I’ve worked with the retail and manufacturing industries using portable devices for years and years. The sheer amount of abuse devices on the sales floor must endure is frankly incredible.

At a company I once worked for, we used to test new mobile devices by running over them with a car, slowly. Anything that didn’t survive was immediately discarded as a possible option. That was for retail. For the manufacturing purposes, the same test was performed, but with a truck.

The only thing that this will result in is thousands upon thousands of broken devices. Retailers won’t stand for having to continually buy new iTouch’s due to broken screens. The bottom line will be impacted and they’ll drop the product.

Mobile POS devices for retail and manufacturing areas already exist, have existed for decades, and while their interfaces have been mostly crap, they work. Whole decades of man-years have gone into making indestructible devices for these specific purposes, and if some startup thinks it can walk in and convert iPod’s, with their trivially broken screens, and get anywhere with it, they’ve got a whole other think coming.

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Roderick Griner May 29, 2010 at 1234

I agree, Otto. I’ve worked in retail, restaurant, and warehouse environments for years and equipment like this, however “cool,” is not sustainable in those environments. They hit the floor, people steal, and they’re more or less seen as toys.

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brianbobcat February 5, 2010 at 1003

I would guess that if anything got broken, it’d be the Infinite Peripherals case long before the iPod touch. Of course I bet that I.P. case isn’t cheap either. Wow this is quite the write-up Gary, you weren’t kidding when you said you were gonna write an in-depth piece. It basically answered all my questions.

-Brian

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Johnny Mozzarella February 5, 2010 at 1152

Here is a comprable product for $3000!
http://www.macmall.com/p/4216680?dpno=7326320

Replacing a broken iPod touch is only $200.
The advantage with the iPod touch based solution is that it is built around a commodity product. You could just keep a spare ready to go should one break.

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Andy February 5, 2010 at 1939

Does my “bum” look like that if I use a Linea-pro?

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brianbobcat February 6, 2010 at 1906

Andy, you want your “bum” to look like a nice lady butt? So even with this Oracle story and app, the solution Apple uses is still their own POS software, right? Apple’s can’t handle debit cards, or something like that, but do the other software solutions provide that functionality?

-Brian

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Bob Davis February 7, 2010 at 0947

Great article Gary. I’ve seen this solution in action at my local Apple store many times and I’m amazed each and every time. The solution makes a big difference on the speed through the store and I can only imagine what it does for their bottom line. I’m convinced this can work for any Retailer who is looking to improve on the one to one experience.

Bob

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Max February 7, 2010 at 1421

I would like to know, if this works with Chip & Pin, that would be great.
Cause I do not know any device that is in fact EMV compliant in the EMEA Region.

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Gary February 9, 2010 at 2246

Brian – You’re correct about the debit cards. Apple is not using the Linēa-pro for handling debit card transactions, apparently because of the PIN entry task. So the stores have two or more separate PIN terminals available for those purchases.

Max – The current Linēa-pro configuration doesn’t handle smartcards, since they’re not widely used the United States. However, it would be fairly simple to add the functionality to the device.

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snausage February 11, 2010 at 0805

Just as with any new technology, there are always embracers and skeptics. When the first handheld device was rolled out to Apple Stores – EasyPay – most employees were using it while kicking and screaming. So much so that management kept track of individual transactions. Now, handhelds are not only the norm but also the preferred method for transactions and rightly so. Other retailers will, no doubt, have their own battles in the beginning but the ultimate payoff for retailers and customers will prevail over any reluctance to make the switch.

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Tim April 5, 2010 at 1017

Well Otto’s quote of “This will *never* get any traction. ” can go right along with CEO of Digital Equipment, Ken Olson’s 1977 quote, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”. This accessory even though not built by Apple, but nonetheless exclusively used by Apple, is probably the second most significant Apple related item released in the last year behind the IPAD. Although I hope the traction takes a while to bite, I need the head start.

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Ian Haugh October 12, 2010 at 0938

You may want to take a look at the LightSpeed Mobile Solution. It utilizes the same Linea Pro technology used in the Apple Stores, but it is affordably priced for everyday retailers.

http://www.xsilva.com/

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svartberg December 2, 2010 at 1535

Is there any way for us poor people to get SDK without buying Linea-pro?

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Retailmadeeasy December 14, 2010 at 0954
Angelo June 2, 2011 at 1448

How can I get one of those

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Steve Fitzpatrick June 19, 2011 at 0242

I was in the Apple store this weekend and saw this POS in action – Wow, so quick and easy! Why can’t more shops implement this technology.

In less than 10 minutes I had been served, had my goods and paid and had my invoice emailed to me. Simply awesome.

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House Designs June 19, 2011 at 0245

These handsets make business really quick. Are they reselling the same devices for other business? The day these become mainstream is the day real life retail shopping takes off again.

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