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Icons of Progress

Innovating the Self-Service Kiosk

IBM100 Innovating the Self-Service Kiosk iconic mark

A quiet revolution was going on while people were buying tens of millions of PCs in the 1980s and hundreds of millions of mobile telephones in the 1990s. However, we tend to forget that there was another dimension to the revolution in mobile computing—the use of kiosks connected to the Internet.

Kiosks spread all over the world: into banks, office buildings and coffee shops, then out onto streets in big cities and small communities. Once just thought of as the cash-dispensing automatic teller machine, or ATM, today kiosks provide all manner of interactive services—from purchasing and printing boarding passes at an airport or rail station, to testing the latest video games, to renting a DVD. Indeed, kiosks have appeared in almost every industry and in the majority of nations around the world. And it all began with a swipe of a card.

The features list in a modern self-service kiosk reads like a greatest hits album of the Information Age. Computers, magnetic stripes, PIN numbers, scanners, printers, dispensers, secured networks, the Internet and encryption are just some of the world-changing technologies found in the self-service kiosks of today. With IBM responsible for either the creation or advancement of many of these technologies, the company has helped to create an environment where self-service kiosks could grow and thrive.

In the early 1970s, IBMers in Raleigh, North Carolina, and elsewhere worked with the American grocery industry to develop the Universal Product Code, also known as the UPC or barcode, and its breakthrough scanning technology to track inventory and speed up paying for groceries at checkout counters. That eventually gave way to the self-checkout counters of today. The magnetic stripe—a requisite element in the proliferation and success of the ATM—was originally developed by IBM for the US Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1960s. In Great Britain, local banks and IBM had been collaborating and innovating with self-service banking; then in 1972 a new product—the IBM ® 2984 Cash Issuing Terminal—was deployed at Lloyds Bank. This was an important milestone during the initial spread of kiosks. Later, touch-sensitive screens reduced the need to use such cards to access kiosks for goods or, for instance, tourist information.

In the 1970s, IBM began installing ATMs in banks and point-of-sale terminals in retail stores. The widely adopted IBM 4730 Personal Banking Machine of 1983 was designed for use in stores, banks and work locations. By the late 1980s, IBM had developed two generations of products that connected ATMs and kiosks to in-store or in-bank computers. And as kiosk technologies continued to shrink in size, more portable devices could be placed in the lobby walls of office buildings, and stand-alone self-service units in parks and on sidewalks.

Quietly over time, kiosks worked their way deeper into our lives: kiosks to buy stamps in post offices, passenger check-in at airports—even for use in Joysound Karaoke controllers in karaoke bars in Japan, which are used today to also order food and drink.

Some of the challenges IBM faced involved applying magnetic stripe technology in different industries and applications that combined computing, networking, and the physical and digital distribution of things. Kiosks had to be easy for consumers to use, be highly precise and accurate, and provide up-to-date information to the companies and governments that used this technology. In the 1990s, they had to be accessible over the Internet and come in smaller, highly mobile forms. As that happened, kiosks multiplied in number. In the United States alone there were more than 131,000 kiosks by the early 2000s, not including ATMs. Worldwide there are now millions of kiosks.

Today, IBM and IBM Business Partners are pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished through the self-service kiosk—with a focus on reliable and ruggedized technologies, security, and accessibility for users with disabilities.