I’m not prone to rants on this blog, but I think it’s time to vent about automated kiosks. Automated kiosks are popping up everywhere – airline check in, the movies, grocery stores and so on. While it’s true that as a consumer I can’t say I particularly like these beasts, I think it’s the engineer in me that’s really ticked off. Why is this you ask? Well I have several beefs with them.
I am constantly amazed at how amazingly slow most of these kiosks are. It’s ridiculous the number of times I’ve stood in front of a kiosk while it tells me ‘System Processing’. What exactly does ‘System Processing’ mean – and how in the age of Gigahertz processors do I find myself having to wait for a computer to do something as pedestrian as process a credit card payment?
Lack of Parallel Processing
Why is it that these terminals do tasks sequentially that could (and should) be done in parallel? For example, at my local grocery store coupons are only printed after payment has been accepted. Why aren’t they printed on the fly?
The up time of these kiosks seems to be amazingly bad. My local cinema has three kiosks. I have never seen all three working at the same time. The availability of check-in kiosks at airports can be even worse.
So what to make of this? Well I think the reasons for these problems becomes apparent if one notices that these kiosks all have a common hardware platform (a CPU with a color flat panel display, a touch screen, a card reader and a printer) and all are trying to solve a common problem (provide an easy to use interface to a big database). I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s highly likely that most of these kiosks are running a Windows X86 platform and that they are programmed in VC++ by folks who do VC++ PC programming. In short they are computers and not embedded systems, and as such are programmed using the usual PC mindset. No wonder they are so bad!
Before I leave this topic, I’ll mention that there is one class of kiosk that for the most part doesn’t have the aforementioned problems – and that is Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). While I can find the user interface on ATMs quite maddening at times, I’ve never gone to use an ATM and found myself staring at the Windows logo. My suspicion is that when it comes to ATMs, banks worked out a long time ago that they needed robust systems with high availability and thus they they went the embedded systems approach as opposed to the PC approach. Without a doubt this is a much more expensive – but boy can I tell the difference!
I went Christmas shopping today. I went to pay for car parking only to be faced with a kiosk stating ‘Printing ticket’ and a piece of paper stuck to the kiosk saying ‘Out of order’. I tracked down another kiosk and successfully paid the parking fee. When I went to exit the car park, the card reader could not read the ticket. A (human) attendant had to manually let me out…