The Wireless Restaurant: It's now or never

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June 01, 2001
Wireless | Technology
Michael Kasavana -

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

The appeal of wireless devices is simple: versatility, mobility, portability and capability. Restaurant managers are discovering the efficiencies gained by moving customer services and staff functionality from fixed position desktop computers and POS terminals to movable handheld devices. As a result, restaurants are starting to reap the benefits of wireless technology in the form of convenience, extended services and enhanced operational efficiencies. Managers can perform several front and back office functions, coordinate staff efforts and monitor sales activities from a palmtop device.

Although data captured by a handheld device is normally transferred to a desktop system to synchronize files and ensure identical content in both devices. While not all handheld applications are available in this format, an increasing number of applications are moving in that direction. PC Magazine reported that in excess of 11.4 million smart handheld devices were sold last year and estimates 61 million will be in use by 2004. Part of the reason for this sudden surge of interest by the hospitality community is the evolution of a unique form of wireless connectivity referred to as Bluetooth technology.

PDA Devices
A personal digital assistant (PDA) is a portable computer small enough to be held in the palm yet powerful enough to exchange data with other devices. A PDA is designed to complement or augment a desktop computer, not replace it. A PDA typically is designed to support personal information management functions, such as address book, calendar, scheduler and calculator. In addition, a PDA can also be configured to handle an array of business applications. While some marketers claim to offer PDAs (stylus-based), as opposed to Microsoft’s Pocket PCs (keyboard-based), most users consider both devices members of the PDA family.

PDA devices fall into two general categories: handheld and palm-sized. The major differences between the two are size, display, data entry and data transference. Handheld units tend to be comparatively larger and heavier with a larger liquid crystal display (LCD) and scaled keyboard. Palm-sized devices are comparatively smaller and lighter with a smaller LCD. Palm-sized devices often rely on stylus and touchscreen technology in combination with handwriting recognition software for data entry.

Common PDA components include a microprocessor, operating system, memory, batteries, LCD, input device and input/output ports. The microprocessor coordinates all PDA functions while the operating system is pre-programmed to direct microprocessor operations. There are three types of PDA operating systems: Palm OS (developed by 3Com), Windows CE (developed by Microsoft) and product-specific, proprietary OS firmware. A PDA does not contain a hard drive and therefore stores programs on a read-only memory (ROM) chip and places user data and add-on programs in the device’s random access memory (RAM). Hence, when a PDA is turned on (i.e., powered up) all its resident programs are readily available. PDAs are powered by alkaline or rechargeable batteries and depend on power management software to extend battery life. PDAs also are equipped with AC adapters to operate with standard electrical service. PDA LCDs vary in size and the screen may be used for both input and output. Input devices vary in how data and commands are input. Miniature keyboards, touchscreen surfaces, stylus instruments, assorted buttons and handwriting recognition software are popular options. It is anticipated that most PDAs will incorporate voice recognition technology for automatic speech recognition in the near future. Input/output ports are important for synchronizing a PDA with another handheld device or a desktop computer.

Device Connectivity
A PDA is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and can be connected to a desktop computer system via cable, modem or wireless connectivity. Handheld devices are typically connected to a larger system to synchronize file content. The two most popular cradle synchronization utilities are HotSync (for the Palm OS®) and ActiveSync (for the WIN CE operating system). Data transfer via cable connectivity between handheld devices or a handheld and desktop PC involves a serial or USB port. Wireless data transference between handheld devices or to a desktop PC can be accomplished through the device’s wireless or infrared port.

Restaurant management system vendors are beginning to offer applications requiring cradle synchronization to a host system. For example, point-of-sale and inventory control applications enable the user to conduct the application independent of a host system. Once the task or shift is complete, the data can be transferred to the larger system to ensure current and consistent information.

Wireless Connectivity
There are two options for wireless connectivity: fixed wireless and mobile wireless. Both formats rely on radio frequency transmission to manage connectivity. Fixed wireless enables an immobile user to connect with others in remote areas without the need to install cabling. Fixed wireless devices derive electrical current from the utility company while mobile devices rely on battery power. Portability and mobility certainly present unique opportunities for the foodservice industry. Wireless technologies include spread-spectrum, infrared and microwave. Spread-spectrum connectivity has a wide reach with a communication range up to 25 miles between devices. Spread-spectrum technology has a transfer speed of 6-8 Mbps (million bits per second). Microwave data transfer communications have about half the range of spread-spectrum transference (12 miles) but can move data quicker (10 Mbps). Infrared (abbreviated IrDA) has an approximate range of one mile with a transfer speed of up to 155 Mbps. In addition, newer handheld devices are being constructed as Bluetooth-compatible.

Bluetooth Technology
Bluetooth (named after a 10th century Danish king) is the latest in wireless technology. Bluetooth technology operates at two levels: connectivity (radio frequency) and protocol (speed, format, etc.). Bluetooth requires that a small radio module be installed into each handheld device. Bluetooth was developed to augment infrared technology that transfers data between components via beams of light in the infrared spectrum. IrDA is the name of the standard established to govern infrared applications. Infrared communications are reliable and relatively inexpensive. Concerns with infrared technology are its line of sight requirement and limitations as a one-to-one technology. Since infrared receivers and transmitters have to be lined up with each other, an interface between devices is often quite difficult. The one-to-one nature of infrared communications ensures that an intended signal goes only to its intended recipient regardless of how many infrared devices are present. For these reasons, Bluetooth technology appears poised for widespread application.

Bluetooth technology is configured similar to a cordless phone system with handset transceivers (portable devices) and base stations (fixed devices). Several Bluetooth devices can operate within the same cell without interference. Bluetooth’s main advantage over infrared is that it does not require line of sight nor is it limited to a singular activity. Bluetooth is expected to complement or replace infrared technology in many application areas.

Foodservice Applications
Imagine a wireless server taking a customer’s order on a sleek touchscreen handheld unit. The order is transmitted to the kitchen or bar area for preparation. The server, in turn, is notified when the order is ready for service. On demand, the server produces a guest check from his/her wearable printer. The server then settles the account and closes the check tableside. This scenario is possible with existing technology and may soon be the norm.
The number of handheld hospitality management, point-of-sale, and front and back office applications are starting to multiply. Several point-of-sale vendors have modified traditional versions of their software for PDA application. As a result vendors claim users can save up to 20 minutes per table in terms of order entry and settlement efficiencies while providing more attentive customer service. As described above, a customer order can be captured tableside, transmitted via radio frequency to a base station and relayed to the appropriate production station.

Consider the benefits of Ameranth’s wireless handheld ordering and POS unit (labeled the 21st Century Restaurant) with settlement and messaging software. The firm claims that this handheld system brings the POS back to where it belongs, at the customer’s tableside. The 21st Century Restaurant system enables touch or stylus order entry, radio frequency transmission, credit card swiping and guest check reconciliation in a server-friendly handheld. Software modules include order preview, menu item modifiers, hold and fire timing, printer routing and time and attendance clock functions.

InfoGenesis offers a wireless portable with tableside or remote (poolside or beachside) order entry capabilities. The POkkY handheld transaction system is unique in that it is available in English, Spanish and French language versions. An innovative palmtop device, the ChefTec PDA, is a mobile food and beverage management tool that is gaining in popularity. The recognized pioneer in wireless applications, Symbol Technologies, has joined forces with several foodservice system vendors to provide wireless inventory management, menu engineering, production planning, purchasing, distribution and enterprise reporting applications for small cafes to fine dining establishments to cruise ships.

Related Hospitality Applications
Mobile travel assistance in the form of maps, guides, weather, virtual tours, hotel search, reservations and the like can be accessed in real time on a Palm Pilot equipped with Palm.Net. Users are able to review current pricing, availability, amenities, promotions and ratings for a large set of properties. For example, properties that participate in the Hotel Reservation Network are featured on the wireless mobile guide available on a Palm.Net-ready PDA. An in-transit traveler can gain access to an array of discounted accommodations with rapid reservation functionality. Soon, it is anticipated foodservice properties will also be included in a downloadable Web-clipping application.

Operational tasks like inventory management, labor productivity, remote management system access and related functions can be available in a handy device. Such lodging applications as Choice Hotels’ versatile Web clippings, Carlson Hotels’ MACH-1 management information system, MSI’s accessible property management system, PertLink HotelInMyHand front office application device, and Red-M’s multiple function unit typify available functionality that may soon be available for foodservice operators.

The wireless application protocol (WAP) is supported by a variety of handheld device operating systems and provides secure and instant access to information. WAP enables complex application software due to its large storage capacity and Internet compatibility (HTML, XML and WML compliant). A unique WAP utility is the micro-browser that allows access to WAP-supporting Web sites. Web providers can benefit by having access to mobile surfers. Handhelds employing WAP technology provide more functional possibilities for both customers and staffers. In addition to PDAs, WAP applications are also available for mobile phones, pagers and similar communicators.

Convergence is a major trend in handheld devices as manufacturers strive to produce more versatile lightweight products for a reasonable price. Convergence refers to the merger of two or more disparate technologies, for example PDAs and cellular phones. Several vendors now offer convergent PDA phones with two-way messaging, Internet access, wireless modem and a variety of voice features. As more restaurant management functions move to handheld devices, PDA phones will likely be the hardware of choice.

In the near future handheld wireless applications are expected to produce additional paperless data processing from remote locations, through abbreviated procedures, across the industry landscape. Restaurant managers are wise to assess the feasibility of PDAs in the foodservice environment. Their potential is very promising. (See sidebar page 39)

Michael Kasavana is a professor of Hospitality Information Systems at the Michigan State Univerisity. He can be reached at  


Hospitality Applications/Supplier Links
1. MSI Property Management Systems (Phoenix) and Holiday Inn Wall Street (NYC) – guests utilizing Bluetooth-enabled devices can gain wireless access to the MSI PMS; guests can check in without front desk interaction, guests can obtain room key, unlock room door, pay bill, check messages and check out through a handheld device. To ensure security, guests must register their unique Bluetooth identification number with the hotel and be assigned a PIN to verify guest status.
2. Ameranth Technology Systems (San Diego) and Jimmy Lu’s Bistro (Dallas) – waitstaff take and distribute guest orders from tableside with a 13-ounce wireless handheld computer via buttons and touchscreen with stylus; expectation is that the handhelds provide faster and better customer service while satisfying employees with high-tech curiosity.
3. Ameranth Technology Systems (San Diego) and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide (White Plains, N.Y. ) – incentive and training programs for wireless housekeeping (room cleaning) functions.
4. InfoGenesis and Bacara Resort & Spa (Santa Barbara) – handhelds for extensive poolside and beachside offerings with connectivity to a wireless network.
5. Culinary Software Services offers ChefTec PDA mobile food and beverage system; offers physical inventory and ordering applications.
6. Ameranth Technology Systems (San Diego) and Aloha Technologies (Bedford, Texas) – tableside wireless handheld ordering and payment processing…i.e., handheld messages to POS.
7. Carlson Hotels Worldwide (Minn.) MACH-1 device – a wireless handheld device giving hotel executives mobile access to management information in real time.
8. Compuwave’s Wireless Restaurant System – wireless ordering system for ordering, dispatching and billing with minimal paperwork.
9. Choice Hotels International (Silver Springs, Md.) – Web application clippings for Palm VII download for guest reservations, availability and view existing reservations.
10. Symbol Technologies has teamed with CrunchTime! Information Systems to develop an inventory application being used at Wolfgang Puck Restaurants, Hudson News’ Euro Cafes and Carnival and Princess cruise lines.
11. Symbol Technologies (Dimex Systems) and Zozobra Restaurants of Israel have collaborated on a wireless server system that enables tableside order entry and guest check settlement.

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