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Which Operating System Should You Use
at Your Point of Sale?

- By Bob Twain

When choosing POS software you'll need to consider a variety of operating systems and platforms including Windows, Linux, DOS, Java, .NET and many more. Everyone from your next door neighbor - to a convincing software salesman will give you their opinion about operating systems. Some will tell you… "Don't mess with Windows. Linux is the best!" And others will say, "I can't stand Linux - Windows is the way to go!"

So who is right? And how do you decide which platform your point of sale software should run on?

For starters, let's define the term operating system (also know as operating platform). An operating system is a collection of routines that service the processing of programs on a computer. It other words, an operating system serves as a mediator between your software applications and the actual computer hardware. Common examples include Windows XP, Linux, and DOS.

You'll often hear "marketing hype" about various platforms and why you should buy them. Sales and marketing people try to differentiate their software by promoting their superior technology or platform. But the truth is… the operating platform is not as important as many people make it. I believe that too many people are stuck on the type of technology used.

Don't get me wrong, the operating system is a key element but it's not the deciding factor for many important features. For example, it's more important for you to consider the quality of the company's software support -- and the reliability of the software -- and the actual retail management features that will increase your profits!

With that said, you still need to understand the differences between each operating system before you can choose your POS software. So let's discuss some common operating systems used in small retail businesses...

Windows is by far the most popular operating system used in small retail businesses. As a result, most POS software companies have designed their software to run on Window 98, 2000 or XP. And that's the biggest reason to use it. If you use more than one type of software application, it's nearly impossible to get by without Windows computers. Whether it's a contact manager or a shareware program that you want -- it probably runs on Windows.

Windows is not the most stable operating system but has improved with the advent of 2000 and XP. In addition, Windows is prone to viruses, worms and security threats. But that's the world we live in. Most businesses don't have a choice but to learn how to make the best of Windows. And when used properly, Windows is a very stable and powerful operating system.

Before Windows came around, hundreds of companies designed their POS software to run on DOS (Disk Operating System). Today many of those companies have converted to a more "visually appealing" Windows interface, but DOS continues to serve its purpose in a variety of businesses.

Retailers can utilize DOS in a couple different ways. First, it can be used without Windows. Some businesses prefer this method because DOS is very stable, simple, easy to install and it's not prone to viruses and worms. However, this method forces you to use DOS applications only.

As an alternative, most retailers use Windows and run their legacy applications under a DOS task. This allows you to run multiple programs at the same time. As long as the software provider continues to update their DOS application this method works fine. But it doesn't look as pretty as Windows apps.

In addition, DOS doesn't allow clicking with the mouse, copying and pasting text, and it doesn't easily interface with other databases. Custom programs have to be written for this to work.

Unix and Linux
Unix and Linux are based on the same technology but the open source version (Linux) has quickly gained popularity. The computer nerds around the world love Linux because of its rock solid stability, low price and open source code.

Both Unix and Linux have proven to serve as great operating systems for a variety of retailers. However, if you want to use third party applications you'll have to use Windows as well.

Unix has been around for a long time and some very powerful POS systems run on Unix/Linux (especially in the vertical markets). As a result, many retailers use Unix or Linux servers and Windows workstations. You might want to consider this approach, if you find a great Unix or Linux POS system that is the best fit for your business. This allows you to utilize your favorite POS software and run 3rd party Windows applications at the same time.

The biggest drawback to Unix is that few hardware technicians know how to use it. As a result, it's more expensive to maintain than Windows. It also requires a dedicated server which can be cost prohibitive for very small retailers with 1 or 2 terminals.

MAC is another very stable and powerful operating system used with Apple's Macintosh Computer. MACs are very popular with graphics design companies, but not in the retail business world. Common applications like Word and QuickBooks will run on a MAC, but very few POS systems run on MACs. If you decide to take this route, your choices for POS software and 3rd party applications will be very limited. And you might have to settle for a generic POS system with limited features.

Open Platform
As you're searching for POS software, you might hear about Java, .NET or browser based software programs. This type of application gives you the most flexibility and allows you to run on almost any operating system. So if you already have a Linux server you can be sure that a Java application will run on it.

Unfortunately, very few POS systems utilize Java or .NET so your choices will be limited. From a programming stand point, there are significant advantages to these languages. However, the advantages for the small business owner are insignificant when compared to other attributes to consider.

Based on availability, there's a good chance your next POS system will run on Windows, Unix or Linux. When configured properly, these operating systems give you the most flexibility to use 3rd party applications like contact managers, email software, electronic ordering software and more.

As you're searching for POS software, you might have an existing computer system and a server. If so, don't limit POS choices to that operating system. That will only limit your potential profits! Your return on investment could be much higher by installing a new server with superior point of sale software.

If you don't have a server, you should choose your POS software first. Then make a list of all your possible software needs (Email, Contact Manager, etc) and ask a hardware consultant and your software provider to help you choose a server operating system.

To Your Success

Bob Twain

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