I just came back from the 2014 collocated Amusement Expo and National Bulk Vendors Association show. The new three-day amusement and bulk vending program included a full day of education followed by two days of exhibits, and the updated schedule was very well received. The Expo sponsors are committed to serving as a "learning resource," and the strong attendance rewarded that commitment.
Attending the 2014 show strengthened my belief that the "coin-op" industries continue to interpenetrate one another, to the point where they've merged into one. Vending Times has been saying this for a long time now, but the convergence among bulk and amusement operators -- and coffee and vending operators for that matter -- is nearing completion, before our very eyes. Savvy industry members have always known that developments in one segment can benefit the other. But there has always been one caveat, especially for bulk operators: applying advanced technology to low-cost equipment was cost-prohibitive. However, "the times they are a-changin'."
Ten years ago, if you wanted to accept major credit (or debit) cards, your machine had to be connected to a financial services network through a gateway provider across a network. You paid to equip your machine with the necessary transceiver, modem, router, etc.; you paid a service provider a monthly fee for network access; and you paid the gateway provider for negotiating a transaction fee with the card network, sending your transactions along to that network, and returning audit reports to you.
About five years ago, an ever-larger number of consumers began carrying wirelessly networked computers (disguised as "smartphones") that were much more powerful than the gear you had installed in your machine. These consumers were already paying for wireless access, and soon became accustomed to using their devices to buy things, just as they had been doing with their laptop and desktop computers. They learned about application software that made this easy to do, like Paypal.
Today, the operator can (in principle) replace the expensive wireless infrastructure and subscription with a simpler "user interface," whereby the patron's phone (or tablet) exchanges data with a machine locally across a wireless "personal area network," and the phone then handles all the wide-area network communication. A service provider makes an "app" available for download; the customer downloads it and opens an account, then uses a major credit card (or other medium) to transfer credit into that account. That done, he or she simply uses the phone's personal area network interface to identify the machine to the phone, which in turn sends that identity over the network to the service provider's secure website and associates it with the customer's account. The service provider's software handles the financial transaction, debiting the customer's account balance and sending an authorization back to the phone. The phone then relays the authorization to the machine, closing the loop and enabling the vend. The personal-area network can be provided by Bluetooth, or by the shorter-range Near Field Communication (NFC) interface. Today, many more phones in the U.S. are equipped with Bluetooth than with NFC, though that will change.
I said "in principle replace" because, at present, the operator still may want his own wireless wide area network to tie his machines together for telemetry, remote surveillance and so forth. But this is not set in stone. In my humble opinion, there is no reason why the machine could not be equipped to "package" its DEX audit information, and perhaps other data, and then send the current "package" out every time a vend is made. The "package" would be received by the hosted site, decoded and sent along to the operator.
I am far from a technology expert, but I am a consumer who uses a smartphone to make purchases, and I also enjoy a wide array of "apps" to make life more convenient. I have Bluetooth in my car and a wireless network subscription for my tablet. Lots of people do; and that's the point. The good news is that today's technology is user friendly and much less complicated than it was just five or 10 years ago. Prototypes have shown that even all-mechanical apparatus can be actuated by wireless if a low-cost receiver sends current from a battery through an electromagnet that temporarily opens a latch to enable a knob to be turned or pushed. Of course, if card acceptance were wanted by the operator, there are a number of technologies that convert a smartphone into a merchant terminal.
It's important to keep in mind that an ongoing exchange of ideas, through conventions and trade shows as well as trade magazines like this one, is the catalyst for harnessing beneficial change to our industry. An open mind, a grasp of the business and participation in this exchange are the only tools needed to take advantage of progress.