CommBank Reaches For a Piece of the Mobile Pi

commBank-albert We have all been there … a crowded table, a busy restaurant and service staff under pressure. On the one hand there’s orders for the bar, on the other new customers ordering meals. The challenge for most restaurants and cafes is to maximise the yield – to get your customers in, fed and out as efficiently as possible.

But then comes the bill.

Everyone wants to pay by card. Some want to split bills. Some want to tip – others don’t. Eyes start to roll. A great experience has come to an end – and all you want to do is give someone some money. It should be easy, right?

So I was interested to learn more about the Commonwealth Bank’s “revolutionary” solution that they are claiming will be the “future of business”. Based on CommBank’s platform known as Pi, it allows developers (including retailers, businesses and vendors) to create business apps that run on the Android powered secure device unimaginatively named “Albert” (they claim links to Einstein).

The fact that CommBank have engineered a finance focused software platform should be enough to send chills up the spines of software vendors around the world. With an already trusted relationship with their merchants there’s a real chance for simplification of business systems here. In fact, the launch video suggests ways forward – inventory and stock management, customer relationship management and customer loyalty.

Interestingly, they’ve taken a mobile first strategy which puts them ahead of the game – not just locally but globally. There’s even a touch of “social” potential in some of the “out of the box” apps – with a micro-donation option available for those times where customers want to “round up the bill” and donate to a worthwhile cause.

Leading the Sector through Technology Innovation

1342483960 Over the last two years or so, I have liked the market positioning that CommBank have been taking. Their aggressive use of consumer technology with apps like the Property Guide App and Kaching have differentiated them from the rest of the sector. So this announcement follows a pattern of technology innovation … with the main difference that we’ll have to wait until 2013 to see Albert up close.

An App Store to Rule Them All

Effectively, CommBank are creating and delivering their own App Store for a proprietary device. It’s an interesting move up the vendor chain – working with Wincor Nixdorf on the hardware and IDEO on the human-centred design. In a clever move, this will lock-in Commonwealth Bank merchants across the country and will also serve as a platform for product cross- and up-sell.

It’s still unclear how the App Store will run, but it seems that it will follow the model set down by Apple and Google – with developers registering and having their apps certified before release. I presume there will be options that allow developers to create apps for specific merchants – I’m thinking of the larger retailers like Myer or David Jones – but there is huge potential here for franchises as well.

Thinking Outside the Square

Apple pioneered the “own the ecosystem” approach – connecting data, identity, analytics, content and proprietary devices via the “cloud” – and CommBank seem to be reading from the same hymn sheet. And when it comes to banking and security, there’s a clear case for this sort of approach.

But the question has to be asked … why not just partner with an organisation like Square – the card reader that turns an iPhone into a mobile payment gateway? It seems that the answer is Leo (yes, as in DaVinci) -  a “strap on” or cradle for iOS devices like iPods and iPhones. This allows for access to the secure Pi platform.

And while this works for the bank – I’m wondering does it work for the customers of the bank’s customers. John Pironti, security and risk advisor with the Information Systems Audit and Control Association in the US suggests that smartphones may well be more secure than our PCs:

It’s pretty easy for banks to use GPS co-ordinates, SMS text messages, phone calls or some combination of these things to make mobile access to your bank account more secure … Plus, banks can in turn use the smart phone as a type of Swiss Army knife for security — employing the various apps and embedded features in their authenticating mechanisms.

Evolution or Revolution?

There may be a kernel of a revolution here … though it’s not in the device. For all its sleek lines, Albert is an evolution of the ubiquitous EFTPOS device found in most stores across the country.

The real value lies in the platform. As we know from social networks, power always accrues to the platform – and the underlying data – the patterns of purchase, customer relationships, business process enablement – could represent significant value to small businesses. And if CommBank could swim up the value chain a little further to deliver customer experience analytics not ONLY to the small business but to the consumer, then they may be onto something.

The thing to remember, is that in a world where business innovation arises out of the customer experience – it’s your customers who are creating the demand-pull for business innovation. And that’s where disruptive technology like Square come into their own. So, if I was the CommBank, I’d be already thinking of version 2 – and wondering just how I could put the power into the hands of its customers customers.