Like almost everything else in IT, point-of-sale technology is going mobile. This shift has gained traction quite rapidly among retailers in particular, as they have been eager to delight customers with user-friendly transaction tools and expanded electronic payment options.
Initially, businesses using iPads as cash registers  seemed like a novel but not enterprise-friendly use case for many organizations. However, recent analyst estimates predict that the mobile POS market will exceed $2 billion in hardware and software sales, according to an article from Forbes.com . This indicates that businesses are making serious investments in transforming their traditional POS systems into mobilized ones.
So how should businesses interested in building a mPOS solution get started? Understanding the key components of a mPOS solution is a good first step.
When assembling a mPOS solution, IT administrators should first focus on the mobile devices themselves. End-user hardware comes in two chief form factors — smartphones and tablets — each serving different use cases.
“We joke that it depends on the size of their pockets when it comes to which form factor people choose,” says Michelle Tinsley, director of transactional retail for Intel’s Retail Solutions Division. “If they’re an associate at a home store and wear an apron with large pockets, they typically want a bigger screen, tablet-sized device. If they work for a specialty retailer, such as a jeweler or clothing store, they’ll likely prefer a smaller model so they can put it away and have two hands free when necessary.”
Examples of tablets for mPOS solutions include the HP ElitePad, a commercial-grade device that runs Microsoft Windows 8 and offers a 10-inch multitouch display. It can slip into a new jacket option that further enhances the tablet’s durability and provides a barcode and magnetic-stripe reader, the latter for completing payment card transactions. The ElitePad is designed to work easily with Windows-based POS applications, which run natively on the tablet.
“This gives retailers the ability to fully integrate the device into a single software platform that is easier for the IT department to deploy and support,” says Ray Carlin, vice president and general manager for retail solutions at HP. “Other approaches require retailers to run a separate mobile POS application that must be interfaced with the main solution.”
The Motorola ET1 Enterprise Tablet runs the Android operating system with proprietary enhancements for better security, device management and data capture support. It uses a 7-inch Gorilla Glass Display and supports Motorola’s RhoMobile Suite developer tools for deploying apps across iOS, Android and Windows OSs.
In addition to size, retailers must also choose between industrial-grade and consumer-class devices. The industrial hardware offers tighter security, including support for payment-processing protocols developed by the PCI Security Standards Council. Some hardware solutions encrypt data as the card reader captures credit-card information from the magnetic stripe.
Many commercial units also are built to resist damage after being dropped and come with replaceable batteries. “If the battery dies when the evening rush is starting, you may not have time to charge a unit and battery replacement is the best option," sasy Ed Weiser, principal consultant for retail solutions at Motorola.
For these reasons, ruggedized devices  have so far ruled the mPOS market, but that may be changing. More than 67 percent of retailers say they are considering non-rugged mobile units for next-generation mPOS solutions, says Eric Klein, senior analyst for mobile software at VDC Research.
“The decision boils down to the cost benefit companies see with consumer mobile platforms, which are much cheaper than ruggedized devices,” he says. VDC Research found price was the top selection criteria for retailers evaluating mobile devices.
Even so, the lure of ruggedized hardware may remain strong. This is because the second most important set of criteria are quality and reliability — two characteristics that play into the success of industrial-strength equipment.
Base stations are also important. Various designs exist, but the typical unit includes a dock for charging mobile gear, along with secure Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Base stations also may hook into small printers for generating receipts, as well as supporting barcode readers and credit card readers.
Technologies that function behind the scenes are also essential for mPOS success. Most notably are the POS applications for powering transactions and providing access to product data.
Cloud-based mPOS solutions offer a number of advantages, including the cost savings from avoiding capital expenditures for server and storage infrastructure upgrades. Other benefits include the ability of staff members to access data anywhere there’s an Internet connection.
The latest versions of POS software, whether designed for on-premises implementations or the cloud, include mobile capabilities. But industry veterans say a large number of retailers still run legacy programs that may require custom interfaces and perhaps middleware to help them communicate easily with mobile devices.
“POS applications may not be written to interact with a mobile device; the software thinks it’s talking to a regular register,” Weiser says. “The middleware knows what the device is and its capabilities, and knows what the POS server application is expecting.”
Finally, retailers should make sure their in-store wireless networks provide full Wi-Fi coverage. It’s critical that associates don’t encounter dead zones while serving customers. A key component of the mPOS development phase should therefore be network performance testing.