Internet Service Makes Pumping Gasoline Fun

FRAMINGHAM (06/22/2000) - Ten Square hopes to make the task of pumping gas a little more bearable by providing applications for gas pumps ranging from coupon printing to interactive advertisements.

The San Jose company is building an Internet-based media delivery network to serve ads to just about every point-of-sale device with an electronic screen, including gas pumps, soda machines, in-store cash register systems and automatic teller machines.

Everyone knows the drill: pull up to the pump, either pay there with a credit card or pay the attendant inside the gas station, select grade, remove nozzle, pump and wait. Ten Square hopes customers use that time to watch ads on the pump screen and print coupons that could be used at local retailers or service centers, says Tony Shah, Ten Square's vice president of product.

Ten Square doesn't limit the end device to just POS terminals. Shah also sees his company reaching out to cellular phones and PDAs.

Ten Square will start with a handful of pilot gas stations in the Atlanta area.

The company is working with Marconi Commerce Systems to install the necessary equipment in each station and ensure pump displays work properly. Marconi is one of the largest providers of gas pumps in the world, with 100,000 units in operation, says Peter Jackson, vice president of marketing and engineering at Marconi.

"We've been pushing for this kind of technology for a while," Jackson says.

"It's a great way to exploit a dead period in the fuel transaction."

Marconi installs or upgrades equipment at many sites for a reduced fee in return for a cut of the revenue generated from the dead-time transactions.

Ten Square takes in orders and content through a Web-based front end called Media Manager. Clients enter coupon details, such as when and for how long they want the ad or promotion to run. That data is sent via the Internet to Ten Square's global data center where it is processed and pushed down to a box in each station.

The box is a Windows NT server running proprietary software that connects to the station POS server and sends content to the individual units. Ten Square uses Cisco VPN technology to encrypt data as it crosses the public Internet.

Fortunately for Ten Square, gas pump manufacturers have been giving pumps IP addresses for some time, and most stations already have some sort of robust network connection, Shah says.

It sounds simple enough but there are challenges. First, the Ten Square system must remain independent of the station, so if the Ten Square server goes down, the station can still do business. Second, the "applications" running on the POS device must not violate "lane time," the average amount of time spent at the device. In the case of a gas pump, Shah says the average lane time is two minutes and three seconds. If the Ten Square application takes longer than that to run, it holds up the rest of the customers waiting for service.

Last, because there is no standard for these device types, the company has to build special templates for each type of display, then fit the content into these templates. For the initial coupon- generating application, this isn't a big problem, but when technology such as streaming media comes into play, there could be customization issues. For now, there are just a few basic templates that customers can use.

As the service expands nationally, Ten Square will build regional processing centers to help balance the load of processing and serving ads. Shah sees a big demand for his company's service, adding there are about four million soda machines equipped with displays similar to those on a gas pump.

Ten Square: www.tensquare. com

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