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  1. Technology
February 23, 1994

MICROSOFT TURNS ITS ATTENTION TO RETAILERS AS THE NEXT COMMUNITY RIPE FOR CONQUEST

By CBR Staff Writer

Microsoft Corp, known for its dominative tendencies in other industries, has now turned its hungry eyes to the retail sector. The firm has been appointed as leader on a subcommittee of the two year-old US-based Association for Retail Technology Standards, ARTS. The subcommittee is the Systems Management Committee, which has the mission to find common technologies for developing distributed retail systems. The ARTS board has already established another subcommittee to define a standard retail data model, and is preparing another for later this year which will look into common development methodologies. Retailers needs to be able to develop applications quickly, said Microsoft’s US head of retail technology, Graham Clarke.

Microsoft at Work

Current technology doesn’t define how applications from one vendor will work with another. He believes that a common technology will reduce the time and cost taken up by implementing a new retail system. Microsoft has already signed up with a number of vendors that are preparing applications for retailers under a Solutions Provider initiative, and it is depressingly unsurprising that they are mostly based around Microsoft technology. The Microsoft retail environment is Windows-based. At the front end, there is the Microsoft Office applications suite, used in conjunction with Microsoft’s development tools. These run under Windows and Windows NT, with NT Advanced Server giving back-end support in the form of SQL Server, Microsoft Mail, System Management and SNA Server modules. The Microsoft at Work embedded operating system is also used. Applications that Microsoft is already looking at include head office software such as decision support and executive information system software to help retailers make decisions based on sales data from regional sites. Space management applications will help retailers decide how much space to allocate to different products, while electronic forms distribution will aid communication. Inside the store the major task will be to update electronic point of sale systems, which are proprietary at the moment. It is looking with some vendors at the concept of a Windows-operated point-of-sale terminal. The firm outlines a typical system with numerous point-of-sale terminals at the front end networked to a controller, which will contain price look-up files. These systems are critical as the retail site cannot operate without pricing information, so it pays to run more than one on the same network. The point-of-sale controller hooks up to a back-office network, which also talks to office workstations, and an in-store processor, which holds the store database and connects to head office over an X25 or ISDN link – all of which sounds exactly the same as the point-of-sale systems that have been in use for the past two decades. Retail managers or other staff who are mobile within the retail site can hang off the back-office network using a mobile, handheld machine running MS-DOS or Winpad – Microsoft’s graphical user interface for small screen areas.

By Danny Bradbury

Already, a number of different applications have been developed by Microsoft’s software partners. There was also an interesting announcement from Symbol Technologies Inc, which has agreed to work with Microsoft on implementing its two-dimensional bar-coding technology – which crams far more information into a given space than conventional bar codes (CI No 2,196), and on introducing wireless technology into retail sites. Meanwhile LifeSoft Development Inc announced development tools and end-user products for the retail sector, rolling out Flexbase for Windows NT, the Winpoint Retail System and the Winpoint Locator and Sampler System. For customers using the Dataflex applications generator and proprietary language to develop source code and files for their applications, Flexbase can be used to convert their work into 32-bit code, thus making it NT-ready. The Winpoint Retail System enables customers that have bought an item to view accessories and match them up with their purchase. Finally, the Wi

npoint Locator and Sampler System is designed for use in music and video stores, where customers want to search for titles to order them. AT&T Global Information Solutions – Gran’daddy of the retail systems suppliers, which does plan to keep the NCR name in the retail arena, has introduced Windows into a point-of-sale system, releasing a Windows-based 7450 workstation. The system also runs AT&T Global’s NICE Client software. The software, designed for Windows 3.1, allows for full-motion video and telephony. Automation Sciences Inc has introduced the Cigar Box point of sale system, along with the Automation Sciences Point of Sale Engine and Developer’s kit. Based – surprise, surprise – around Windows, the systems offer keyboard, mouse and touch screen control. UK-based Softwright Systems Ltd launched GUI-POS, which is a graphical user interface for point of sale applications. The object-oriented interface, designed around Microsoft’s own Object Linking & Embedding 2.0 technology, is designed to make use of multimedia. Microsoft is backing OLE 2.0 technology into the Object Mangement Group’s CORBA technology by bridging to Digital Equipment’s Object Request Broker Technology using the Common Object Model, announced in December (CI No 2,315). Vendors that are supporting Microsoft with its retail strategy don’t seem worried that someone else’s technology has been taken as the core of most future retail systems. Valerie Attenborough, AT&T Global’s marketing manager for retail in the UK, says that AT&T has always made most of its money from services rather than the installation of hardware and software, (the retail software having been mostly badged in the past). De fact standard Even so, AT&T’s pledged support for open standards seems to fall a little flat here: how can system using only one company’s technology as its core be an open standard. All you have to do is look at what an open system is and a definition is that it shouldn’t be owned by one company, says Ms Attenborough: This is a de facto standard. Launched in the US a few weeks ago, Microsoft’s retail initiative was aired in the UK shortly afterwards. The difficulty facing the company is that there is no version of the US Association for Retail Technology Standards in the UK, so its introduction of the Microsoft retail standard is less stable here. Microsoft is hoping that even though there is no official ratification of its technology as a retail standard in the UK, it will become a de facto standard because of the support it has gleaned from the developer community. It hopes that retailers here will welcome a standard for retail, even if there is no UK committee, and another phase in the Microsoft world domination plan will be in place. But it seems unlikely that retailers will fall for the ploy Microsoft has tried on manufacturers of television set-top boxes (CI No 2,350), that of charging a fee each time its software is used for a retail transaction…

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