Over the Holidays, I had a Skype conversation with my good friend in Denmark, Horatio. We talked about the life expectancy of technology and the veritable graveyard of gizmos that now are only seen in retro web sites, yard sales and museums. Looking at all that was once hot and then displaced, replaced or forgotten forces one to contemplate what is viewed as hot today. I told my friend that I was afraid that the kiosk as we once knew it is headed for the museum, a victim of better, cheaper and more effective technology on the screens of smartphones.

My first professional encounter with kiosk technology was back around 1990. I was a young consultant working with a local company in Boston that wanted to provide health and drug information via kiosks to customers in drug stores. To put the timeframe in proper perspective, the technology driving the effort was a laser disk. The idea sounded good: put the knowledge base of the Physicians Desk Reference and other medical references at the fingertips of consumers worried about symptoms, interactions and side effects. Lead them to informed interactions with a pharmacist; help them make decisions about over-the-counter products; and of course provide screen time for potential advertisers. That particular company never gained traction, but they had identified a void in the information flow to consumers and a vertical (health care) that abounds with products and potential sponsors even today.

Since that time, informational kiosks of many stripes have been successfully deployed in retail, public spaces and in corporate environments. Wayfinding, gift registry, customer service and even HR applications are among the drivers of growth in that sector. Transactional kiosks have emerged to dispense movie tickets, airline boarding passes and postage quite successfully. Companies like Zoom Systems and Coinstar have blurred the distinction between a kiosk and a vending machine. Even as the growth of kiosk deployments continues, the pieces are falling into place to drastically alter their lifecycle.

Simply stated, two layers of mobile technology are going to make informational and many transactional kiosks items of fond memory: smartphones and Near Field Communications (NFC). Smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone and various Droid entries, continue to make their way into the pockets of more and more consumers, with 3Q 2011 U.S. penetration pegged at 44% by Nielsen. Their ability to support applications and to connect to the web has quickly made them a go-to personal platform. A Motorola Solutions Survey published in December provides some good insight into the trend toward greater in-store mobile usage among customers and store associates. Among other findings, the survey reports that 43% of consumers responded favorably when asked if they would use a branded store app for wayfinding and shopping lists. Those phones are not staying in the pockets, folks!

The smartphones alone will not displace kiosks, as they are only a vehicle that can move a customer interaction from a kiosk screen to a personal device. Consumers appear widely ready for that. Something still has to replace the initial screen tap or button press to start a session. The elegant trigger for initiating that interaction is still missing, but it is coming. Today, it is possible to provide a link to a web or mobile app using a QR code, SnapTag or even an audio cue. That link could come from a static sign or a digital sign. Both methods provide a one-to-many relationship between the sign and potential consumers, making simultaneous sessions very much a possibility. But each of these techniques have their limitations, and none are likely to survive when NFC is widely available on popular smartphones, a wave that will likely be led by Apple, and quite possibly this year.

NFC would allow a digital sign to run a full screen attractor loop, enticing customers to wave their NFC enabled phones at a hotspot to check in, launch a branded app, begin a web-based session, or download a barcoded coupon. Need a store map? You got it. Your friend’s bridal registry list downloaded to your phone? Easy. Money saving coupons? You bet. Movie tickets? I don’t see why not. NFC triggering and delivery combined with digital signage will serve more customers the way they want to be served (on their smartphones), allow for excellent tracking and measurement, and displace the need for the kiosk device itself.

It is inevitable that one-to-one messaging is going to move to the small screen, and the big screen will be used to engage consumers for specific interactive sessions on their mobile devices. That leaves the mid-sized screens of many kiosks in a tough place. There will of course still be a place for kiosks that have special purpose, such as delivery of physical goods or documents, requirements for special devices such as biometric kiosks and more. But even these will likely have an NFC or mobile hook. The smartphone screen will assert its influence very soon. If big screen digital signage operators play it correctly, they can displace many kiosks going forward.

I closed my conversation with Horatio with a monologue, with apologies to the Bard of Avon:

Alas, poor Kiosk! I knew him, Horatio: a technology of infinite use and many
applications: he hath guided my experience a thousand times; and now I am
sad to see him wither away! Here is that touch screen I have tapped I know not
how oft. Where is your gift registry now? Your wayfinding? Your recipes?
Your database of relevant information that were wont to set shoppers on a roll?
Not one now, to mock your attractor loop? Are you sad? Now get you to my
lady’s chamber and tell her, and have her charge up her smartphone, to the
new reality she must come; make her laugh at that.

Horatio didn’t disagree, he simply invited me to Denmark to see it in action.