If you know the company Square, it’s probably because you’ve paid in a store using a Square “stand,” a dock that supports a tablet, or you’ve swiped your card through Square Reader, a smartphone dongle that processes payments. These products have a soothing, decidedly Apple-y aesthetic, from the simple dongle to the all-white stand that typically houses an iPad. But since late last year, Square has been quietly selling its own custom-made tablet, the Square Register, a $999, Android-based system. And the company has taken an obsessive approach to designing the product.
It caught my eye during a recent visit to the company, where it’s set up to accept payments in an employee cafe. The most noticeable part of the device is the large, 13-inch anodized aluminum tablet that sellers uses; it’s as if a MacBook and an Android tablet got together and made a cash register. It struck me that Square has put a whole lot of effort into something that’s ultimately supposed to blend into the background. If it wasn’t a modernized cash register, it would almost make you want to buy one and use it as a tablet.
OK, not really; streaming Netflix on something designed to be a point-of-sale-system is a terrible idea, worse than watching movies on a Linux-based in-flight entertainment system. And while the Square Register looks like a premium product, it’s intentionally stripped down in ways that means it wouldn’t work at all as a consumer product. Example: It needs to be connected to power at all times.
But Square’s custom-made regist-ablet is something that gives the company an alternative to other tablets, including Apple’s iPad, and is indicative of how serious Square is about controlling the whole payments experience. Over the past few years, the company has assembled a team of 150 hardware designers and engineers—including ex-Apple employees—to build what it thinks is the future of point-of-sale systems. Its goal wasn’t just to make custom hardware, but to make the software experience better, too.
Other point-of-sale system makers also offer tablet stands or make their own tablets. Clover, owned by First Data, sells both a Clover Station and Clover Mini that cost less than Square’s solution. Shopify, a giant e-commerce company based in Canada, sells a point-of-sale kit for $749, but that uses an iPad.
The Square Register is aimed at businesses that process more than $125,000 in a year. Jesse Dorogusker, the head of hardware at Square and an Apple veteran, told me that some of the company’s larger sellers were “having some challenges” with just a Square stand and another tablet, though he was careful to say those problems weren’t specific to iPad.
Some of these issues had to do with sizing; 10 inches, the native screen measurement of the iPad, suddenly became the default size for modern point-of-sale systems, which Dorogusker said is “absurdly small” for a register. And some of Square’s merchants were telling the company that the software upkeep on consumer tablets was just too much.
“One of our larger sellers said they have someone whose full-time job is to run around and go to the stores and check the iPad, make sure it’s updated, cleaning up apps, update our Square app on there,” Dorogusker told me. “All of the IT challenges we were trying to take away the past couple years, we were giving back to our larger sellers.”
Most notably, while the swivel function on the Square stand works fine enough—the person behind the counter punches in your order, then swivels the tablet around so you can tap your phone or slide your card to pay—Dorogusker said it didn’t work for all counter-top sellers, either because of the awkwardness of the interaction or because of the way some counter-tops are built. The seller and buyer in a coffee shop should be close enough to have the interaction, but not so close that you’re leaning in and smelling each other’s coffee breath, basically.
So as part of the design process for the new tablet, Dorogusker and his team, which includes Thomas Templeton, another ex-Apple engineer, spent a lot of time studying the physical space that exists between a seller and customer. One of the things that was happening at the time this new Android tablet was being developed was the transition in the US from swipe credit cards, to chip credit cards and tap-to-pay options. “The behavior of, I hand my card to a seller and they swipe it and hand it back to me? That ritual was broken,” Dorogusker said. “It’s now common that I don’t give up my card. That influences the industrial design tremendously. Also, tapping your phone? You’re not going to hand your phone over to someone else.”
At Square’s offices, Templeton showed me several early sketches of the new Square system, as well as cardboard tablet prototypes. In the year before the tablet’s launch, Square engineers visited businesses with these prototypes and a fistful of magnetized card-swipe mods, which they could attach on either side or at the base of cardboard model. Templeton called these “Legos,” because of their modularity. The engineering team put the cardboard payment systems on countertops, attached some fake Legos, and presented them to sellers, both in and outside of the US. “We said, ‘Imagine this was your register. Is this screen right? Where would you want this? If you’re accepting chip cards would you want this closer to you, or closer to your customer?’” Templeton said.
The result of the whole process was not a single tablet, but a two-in-one device. The Square Register is comprised of a 13-inch, anodized aluminum tablet, which is stamped and machined. It has an HD touchscreen display and, while it’s attached to a stand, it was designed to look like it’s hovering in space. The second, seven-inch tablet can either be docked in the back of the big tablet, or sit elsewhere on the counter, attached by micro-USB. This small tablet’s display is Gorilla Glass, in case it gets dropped or knocked off the counter.
The register is running on two Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processors. And in a move that is indeed very Apple-y, Square has designed its own secure enclave, a co-processor for processing encrypted payment information. About a dozen employees at Square work on the silicon team.
Square’s tablet has 16 gigabytes of flash memory but hardly any internal storage, since it isn’t meant to have anything stored on it. It doesn’t have any cameras, and its speakers are basic. It does have an Ethernet port, since merchants need stable connections to process payments. In many ways it’s not a full tablet. Sure, Square’s software runs on top of Android, but Square is the only software a user will see; there’s no Google Play store here. But at the same time, that Square software can be updated automatically. If you could boil down tablets into two categories now—tablet computers and tablets as sleek, single-purpose slabs that in the past we thought looked like the future—Square’s is somewhere in between.
The Square Register had just 50 beta testers when it launched, and is only available the US. Even now, a small percentage of Square’s overall merchant base uses the custom-designed tablet; many payments in stores are actually still processed on iPads. Dorogusker declined to say whether Square makes money off this $999 tablet without internal storage or a battery, and would only say that it’s an important part of Square’s customer acquisition strategy. Square’s most recent earnings report indicates that while revenue from its hardware business is growing, it still spends millions more than it makes on hardware.
It would be an easy cliche to say Square has made an “iPad killer”; that’s not the case. But in a tablet market where Apple still dominates, a financial services company has made a piece of hardware that’s covetable and happens to run on Android. While it was built mostly for the benefit of merchants, it’s also nice-looking for the people swiping or tapping on the other side. And if they don’t notice it at all, it was probably designed to be that way.