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Local native took part in retail revolution
[August 15, 2007]

Local native took part in retail revolution

(Watertown Daily Times (NY) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Aug. 15--The name Eugene L. Mosher is not a familiar one to most people, certainly not as well known as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Yet according to the Watertown native, Mr. Mosher was the pioneer of a device that's now as common as Apple computers and Microsoft documents.

Anyone who has touched a screen to check out at a grocery store or pressed the hamburger logo to order at a fast-food restaurant is familiar with the concept Mr. Mosher helped create, a form of point-of-sale, or POS.

POS is the all-inclusive term for the hardware and software used, among other examples, to check out at retail stores or to enter food orders at restaurants. Evolved from mechanical cash registers, POS systems now include credit card scanners, bar code readers and touch screens. On the management side, the systems can keep track of such information as inventories, payrolls and accounts.

Although he said he was one of the first to find a practical restaurant application for technology such as touch screens, Mr. Mosher said capitalizing on his ideas has proved more difficult.

Now, after decades of quietly developing and sharing his ideas, Mr. Mosher -- the owner of technology company ViewTouch in Eugene, Ore. -- hopes to capitalize on the growing market for restaurant systems by introducing a product that, at just under $500, is a tenth of the cost of most available systems.

Mr. Mosher was born in 1949 in Watertown and grew up in Philadelphia. His mother, Barbara M., and sister, Mary F. Dillenback, still live in Fishers Landing.

A graduate of Indian River High School, Philadelphia, Mr. Mosher received his bachelor's degree from SUNY Buffalo, where he studied anthropology and worked at a local pizza and sub shop. After graduation, he decided to open his own restaurants. By the 1980s, he had pairs of restaurants in Buffalo, Syracuse and Virginia Beach, Va. Among them was the lunch spot Gene Mosher's Old Canal Cafe, on Clinton Street, Syracuse.

As personal computers began to appear, Mr. Mosher bought an Apple II and began writing software in green or bright amber fonts, saving his work on cassette tapes, since the machines lacked floppy drives.

In 1977, he saw a practical application for his work when salesmen started offering him electronic cash registers, designed to replace the older, mechanical versions. He bought one and then asked how he could hook it up to his computer.

"The short answer was, 'No way in hell, ever,'" he said. "I thought, 'Well, that's not OK.' I realized I just had to get rid of the cash registers."

Mr. Mosher wrote what he called "a little code for the computer to do whatever the cash register did, which was count," and realized he had a tool that could record all of his transactions. That data then created an overview for the restaurants, he said.

"Now a restaurant could find out what the public is coming in for, what the most popular items are," Mr. Mosher said. "That was the beginning of real restaurant management, as well as POS."

At Old Canal on Clinton Street, Mr. Mosher installed 65 feet of cable between the front door and back. Orders at the door would print in the kitchen, eventually making the establishment so efficient that food could arrive at the table before the customer, he said. Mr. Mosher used feedback information to adjust his menu, discarding the least-popular items. Buying patterns improved, as did the speed of service, with the number of mistakes, steps and congestion all decreasing, he said.

"Gene has always been a kind of visionary, always thinking ahead of things," said John W. LaClair, a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin in Syracuse and a longtime friend of Mr. Mosher's. In the early 1980s, when personal computers were just coming out, Mr. LaClair recalls the ordering network at Old Canal Cafe. Employed at General Electric at the time, Mr. LaClair said larger companies were still using mammoth mainframes even as private citizens such as Mr. Mosher raced ahead on their own computers.

In those pre-Internet days, it was hard to know what innovations other people were developing. Still, speaking at computer and restaurant conferences, Mr. Mosher said he would fill up shoeboxes with business cards.

"In those days, you got a lot of publicity if you're doing something unique," he said. "Today we're in the ocean, but those days it was a little lake."

Mr. Mosher sold his restaurants in 1983 and moved to Oregon, looking to capitalize on his POS developments. At that time, intellectual property was not very well protected, he said, and each time he explained his ideas to developers at a major company they would nod their heads, not return his calls and come out with a similar product a few years later.

"That's how you steal product in the industry," Mr. Mosher said. "You get someone to talk about it a lot and then you don't have anything to do with them."

Still, he insists he's more proud than bitter, pointing out that he didn't have enough money to develop all of the products at the time. Since then, his company, ViewTouch, has built a customer base of several hundred, using forms of open source software, like Linux, to develop products.

"I'm not wealthy from doing this, but I do have the satisfaction that I didn't restrict anybody from doing this," Mr. Mosher said. "I sleep well, because the world is using an idea I designed."

Now, he hopes to undercut the large companies with a device he's producing in partnership with John Nicholls, owner of technology company ThinLinX in Australia. The Hot-e comes ready to plug in and use in a restaurant or bar, Mr. Mosher said, with adjustable interfaces such as table layouts, menus and prices. It uses three watts of power, has no internal fans or moving parts and can configure itself to different systems. At $495, Mr. Mosher believes, his device compares very favorably to the competitors in the $50,000 to $100,000 price range.

Not too far into the future, Mr. Mosher imagines a device that would interact with a person to such a degree that his wife, for example, could walk out of her house, tap a list of favorite restaurants and be able to pick up her morning cup of coffee, already paid for, on her way to work.

"We're going to be able to make these kinds of decisions about buying things, without having to go to a restaurant to tell people what we want," he said. "It's absolutely going to happen; it's just a question of when and who does it first."

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