Normally, one goes on vacation to escape from work. And for the last 10 days I've been doing mostly that, relaxing on the beach in Hawaii. Except for an occasional scan through my Twitter timeline and e-mail inbox, I've been blissfully unaware of goings-on in the greater tech world.
So it was a pleasant surprise today to encounter a relevant tech story in Paradise, one that demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the Windows platform.
This morning, my wife and I were walking through the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki Beach and stopped at a little shop called Hula-La. While Judy was oohing and aahing over the stylish swimwear (yes, that link is safe for work, but just barely), I was eyeing the tiny all-in-one PC on the equally tiny checkout counter. "Is that a touchscreen system?" I asked the shop's owner. Indeed it was, and in a rare intersection of geekiness and style, owner Erika Ireland proceeded to give me an enthusiastic and unsolicited rundown on the system she was using to run the boutique.
The small touchscreen system is an ASUS Eee Top, powered by an Atom N270 processor and running Windows XP Home Edition. Ireland told me she picked it out after seeing it in operation in a local shop and then verifying its reliability and performance via online reviews.
The retail part of the package is Intuit's QuickBooks Cash Register Plus, included as part of a bundle at Costco that included the touch-enabled software, a credit card reader, cash drawer, and receipt printer. Total price of the system, including the PC hardware? Roughly a grand.
Touchscreen point-of-sale systems certainly aren't new, but historically they have been sold as part of expensive proprietary solutions, typically aimed at vertical markets like restaurants and hotels, and usually costing several times the cost of the system I saw here. Those dedicated systems have typically been bulky, too, built like conventional cash registers. To see this system running smoothly with low-cost, energy-efficient, svelte hardware was eye-opening. And the reason that cheap, good looking, touch-enabled hardware exists is because Microsoft made a commitment several years ago to supporting touch input on the omnipresent Windows platform. (And yes, this system would have run just fine on Windows 7.)
The one weakness that this small business's experience pointed out was an unfortunate and inevitable by-product of the Windows ecosystem. With hardware and software from as many as a half-dozen different companies, the potential for finger-pointing is always there if something goes wrong.
And indeed, Ireland's initial experience was less than perfect, she told me. Although setup was simple, the credit card reader refused to work properly. Intuit swapped out the reader three times, without success, and blamed it on the PC hardware. ASUS pointed the finger back at Intuit. Ireland, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur and a self-confessed "problem solver," finally grew frustrated with Intuit's India-based support staff and tracked down the maker of the card reader, MagTek. A call to that company's U.S.-based support line quickly determined that the device was transmitting data faster than the PC could process it; editing a configuration file slowed the data rate to one that worked properly. After getting past that initial glitch, the system now works smoothly.
Ironically, in the corner of Hula-la I saw a large screen TV showing off the company's swimware line in a web browser. That TV was hooked up to a Mac Mini. It looked fabulous, but it couldn't handle the work of running the company's business. Sometimes the metaphors just write themselves.
If you ever get a chance to stay at the Royal Hawaiian, I heartily recommend it. And even if you're just passing through, be sure to stop by Hula-la and tell them I sent you.