Back in 2007, Motorola teamed up with design firm Aruliden. They wanted to create a mobile point of sale device (MPOS)–a pocketable scanner that an employee could carry to check out a customer. These MPOS units were pretty popular in retail stores already, but they were bulky, like a Zack Morris phone (ironically, a form factor popularized by Motorola).
This was the conceptual solution they came up with. Called the Sparrow, it combined a scanner, point of sale (POS) system, RFID, and credit card scanning capabilities into one device. You could even make a phone call if you had to. That touch-screen surface? That’s not actually a touch screen; the Sparrow was controlled by swiping the backside of the device.
“We also solved for wearability–to allow associates to be hands-free when not interacting with a customer,” adds Aruliden’s Kate Hoehlein. “This was an important demand in retail as associates have multiple tasks to complete throughout the day and cannot be faced with the burden of carrying a device in one hand. The Sparrow easily integrates attachments such as a lanyard or a clip that connect via magnets.”
The Sparrow is sleek and glossy; it’s every bit an improvement on the old MPOS systems of yore. So why isn’t every store using the concept today, beyond the slightest whiff of “pager” you get from its pocket clip?
With touch-screen smartphones, all of this specialized design has been dematerialized. Phones offered a tabula rasa platform to not just be an MPOS, but to do anything. They inherently solved the problems of portability. Their wider install base–iOS and Android–created a larger market, which lured a third-party development community to make specialized software (and if needed, hardware). Just look at Square or PayPal.
Five years after the Sparrow, the social retail challenge has changed. Every Target employee carrying a Sparrow is less appealing than every single customer carrying an NFC-enabled phone. Costs and capabilities are shifting, and they’re shifting in the consumer’s direction. Most of us don’t think twice about signing hefty two-year contracts to subsidize the most advanced phones on the market. For retailers not to leverage that fact would be a waste of their own money.
And I can’t help but wonder, ever so cynically: If Motorola hadn’t burned away half a decade after releasing the RAZR, would they even have developed the Sparrow? Or would they have just invented the modern multi-touch smartphone first?