February 2, 2006

The Problem with Consensus Computing

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Opinion: Contactless payment and biometric authentication are two good examples of technologies that make great sense if a lot of people deploy. But getting the first big players to deploy is what separates the servers from the laptops.

Breakthrough technologies invariably require some IT executive somewhere to have the guts to deploy when no one else is seriously doing so.

That's a bold and dangerous move, given how many technologies fizzle and die after an impressive beginning.

Those technologies sometimes die because customers don't like it, its pricing is too high or major partners never provide sufficient support, such as software vendors that don't port enough applications for a new hardware platform.

But there are some technologies that also require the support of lots of customers.

Consider the contactless payment effort launched last year by 7-Eleven.

Forget the software, hardware, networking or distribution communities.

The 7-Eleven contactless project could wither and die if an insufficient number of other competitors—other retailers—deploy.

Imagine having one of your top initiative's success literally in the hands of your most bitter rivals.

Of course, the majority of your rivals only matter because the rest of the industry won't truly support it without a steady stream of customers.

This is a key issue with biometric authentication for retail payment.

In a story eWEEK.com ran this week about consumer resistance to biometric authentication, we detailed the various hurdles the technology is facing.

Some of the hurdles are substantial and expected (such as security and privacy), some are technical and can be overcome and avoided with work (getting a higher percentage of consumers to generate usable scans), and others border on the eerie.

The eerie part involves consumers who won't use a finger scan because it's something the Bible said would be used by Satan.

A 70-year-old woman was quoted in the story as yelling at a retail clerk trying to sign people up for finger biometrics.

She literally threw a Bible at him and a witness said, "She told him that God was going to rain hellfire on him and that he was promoting the devil's work."

Granted, from time to time, we've all said essentially the same thing to people working at Microsoft tradeshow booth. But isn't this a bit much for a finger scan?

I'm fond of a comment a reader e-mailed me after the biometric piece appeared.

"I'm really glad we're at war to stop religious fanaticism around the world. We're so sane and sober here. Sheesh."

Consumer fears notwithstanding, biometrics makes huge financial sense for retailers in accelerated checkout, potentially much lower processing fees and vastly more sophisticated CRM potential.

But will retailers hold firm in the face of a nervous public? Fingerprints—or, as some in biometrics likes to call them, finger images—carry a lot of negative emotional baggage.

"Biometrics for payment has some benefits but faces a tremendous PR problem. Cop shows make it seem like every fingerprint can immediately be identified and, if you have a criminal record, people believe that shopping at one of these stores could get them arrested," said Greg Buzek, president of the IHL Consulting Group.

"Of course, the systems work totally different than a straight fingerprint, but to the casual consumer, getting over that Hollywood education is going to be very tough."

One of the bravest and most aggressive early supporters of retail biometrics has been the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, with 114 stores in South Carolina and Georgia.

Their initial rollout worked well, but later rollouts have run headfirst into consumer resistance.

"Along with improving speed of checkout, when implemented correctly, biometrics can provide higher levels of data security than standard credit card swipes or data entry. I expect to see significant adoption over the coming twenty-four months," said Paula Rosenblum, retail analyst at the Aberdeen Group.

"Having said that, Piggly Wiggly's experience highlights the importance of exercising caution ... know your demographics and avoid high risk implementations."

The head of the biometric program at Piggly Wiggly—Assistant IS Director Rachel Bolt—agrees that biometrics will likely kick in eventually because the economics are simply too compelling. But the holdup is now other retail IT execs.

"I predict consumers will overcome the skepticism and enroll as soon as one of the big guys implements," she said.

In this case, the "big guys" Bolt is referencing are some of the large retail chains that are today quietly experimenting with biometric checkout—including Wal-Mart, Target and Costco—and some that are already officially testing it, including Albertson's.

All players are waiting for other retailers to take the plunge and take the heat.

In the meantime, the evil rumors around finger-scanning continue. Maybe the Unix gurus named finger daemon appropriately?

This group approach is the polar opposite of the typical CIO approach to cutting-edge technology, where it is seen as an ultra-proprietary differentiator that should be kept secret at all costs.

Talking with CIOs all day about what their companies are deploying, I am much more familiar with that cloak-and-dagger mentality than I want to be.

What's different about contactless payment and biometric authentication at checkout?

It goes into the same category as self-checkout, ATMs and the ever-popular voicemail sheepdog tactic ("If you want to be put on extended hold and then disconnected while trying to discuss a bill, press 1. If you want to be put on extended hold and then disconnected while trying to get technical support, press 2....").

What do those technologies all have in common? They help the companies (retailers, banks, etc.) a lot, they help customers a tiny little bit and customers know it, at one level or another.

Consumers didn't seek it, don't particularly want it and are very inclined to resist.

Those consumers only succumb when they have no choice, which means when all of the bankers or retailers all offer it and insist on it.

Wouldn't consumers like plumbers and electricians that always called back and showed up on time?

Of course, but the only way that plumbers and electricians get away from not doing that is that virtually no plumber or electrician does.

There's safety in numbers, and an electrician that routinely returns calls promptly is violating the contractor code of conduct.

Getting back to authentication, retailers will undoubtedly make the move, but most are waiting for a clear majority to move in.

What retailer wants to be the first and only electrician in the neighborhood that doesn't return calls?