I recently came across a rather amazing UC-B application in the most unlikely of applications: soda dispensers. Coca Cola is testing a new unit called the Freestyle that can dispense over 100 types of drinks versus the 6 or so you get from the ones you now find at the local McDonald’s. The real key is that the dispenser has an embedded cellular data connection and can provide a wealth of sales data,automatic reordering, and the ability to download new drink formulas.
From the soft drink standpoint, the key development is that the Freestyle has 30 cartridges containing highly-concentrated flavorings from which it can mix over 100 different drinks; only a few drops are needed to make a drink. Each cartridge is RFID tagged, and the dispenser contains an RFID reader that can monitor usage and determine when cartridges need to be reordered. Further, if they ever need to recall a particular batch of cartridges, those problem units can be disabled instantly from headquarters.
Fast food outlets have traditionally kept track of sales by counting the cups; since the customer fills their own cup, they really don’t have any idea what beverages are selling. With the Freestyle dispensers, they can not only determine exactly which choices are selling, they can determine different buying patterns at different times of the day. All of that information is uploaded over VerizonWireless’ mobile data network, so the machines can be plunked down in the store and don’t need to be connected to a wired network connection.
The other flexibility afforded by this design is that formulas for new drinks can be downloaded over the cellular data connection. Drinks are selected from a touch sensitive display, so a new drink can be added to the menu all by means of software. So, if they come up with another bomb like the “New Coke”, they can test market it,roll it out, or cancel it far more cheaply than with their traditional process.
Businesses are reluctant to invest in soft-dollar productivity enhancements, which is what makes UC-B so exciting. When we look to “optimize business processes”, we have to get beyond office-oriented tasks and get into the real “business”. What I loved about this application was that it took a process that hasn’t changed substantially in decades, provided a far more efficient means to deliver the product, collect detailed sales data, and includes a more flexible means of testing and introducing new products. It think that qualifies as “Communications integratedto optimize business processes”.
I do have to agree with you that this is a business process that can benefit from wireless connectivity between a point-of-sale dispenser and a highly automated centralized control/management point. This connectivity cost-efficiently provides greater flexibility of product offerings, timely activity feedback, and options for distribution policy changes. Definitely helps optimize the distribution business process of soft drinks to consumers.
As long as the "flow" is fully automated and working smoothly, everything is fine. However, once the flow requires the need for a human skill or judgement, the process will require "UC-U" as well. That is, the flexibility of UC communication applications based on people accessibility/availability, will always be a necessary element of UC-U. Obviously, certain business processes always require people to be able to initiate or respond to communications from automated business processes (process-to-person) or other people (person-to-person). Maximizing the flexibility to communicate easily and quickly with people, not just equipment, is therefore critical to UC-U and therefore indirectly to UC-B.
I agree, but I don't look at this initial implementation as the "be all and end all". Incorporating intelligence and communications capabilities in the machine opens the door to a world of other possibilities.
In this case, the question is: who is the machine talking to? The initial functionality is aimed at providing sales analysis, reordering, etc. to the back office. It will be a lot more challenging but a lot more strategic to establish a dialog with the actual customer. About as far as we have seen that go is to use the cell phone as an electronic payment device. Up until now, we have been hampered in those attempts based on the fact that we had so many different models of cell phones with different operating systems, communications interfaces, etc.
The iPhone and the library of applications that have been developed for it really has changed the game (i.e. "There's an app for that"). A vendor like Coke would be foolish to limit the functionality to iPhone owners, but we have app stores for virtually every mobile OS, and Bluetooth capability is standard in virtually all handsets and Wi-Fi is becoming a regular addition to smartphones.
Most mobile applications link the mobile device to a Web based back end, but maybe its time to turn that model around and establish a dialogue between the user's mobile device and devices that are nearby (like soda dispensers).