The promise of a unified restaurant business technology platform has excited forward-thinking operators for several decades. But like the flying car and lunar vacations, it has remained elusive. Even as new solutions that solve the industry’s most pressing problems are brought to market daily, operators are faced with growing complexity and shrinking choice. Proprietary development environments, a lack of standards and the desire of entrenched incumbent providers to squelch competition have all contributed to this situation—often preventing operators from achieving their maximum potential.

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Just as Microsoft and Apple created standardized open-architecture platforms for development of office productivity and consumer solutions that now work seamlessly together, we are seeing the beginnings of what may be tomorrow’s Windows and iOS for the restaurant business—a restaurant Operating System, or “rOS,” that would rapidly expand competition, spark innovation and provide a common language for the exchange of data between many applications.

Cloud-based data warehouses and standards like HTML 5 have made the development of an rOS theoretically possible. But the realization of such an ecosystem relies in large part on participation by business solution providers to make their services readily available in the form of Application Programming Interfaces (API) and Software Development Kits (SDK). So what can operators do in the meantime to prepare for the biggest technology shift in the industry since the introduction of integrated POS systems?

Work with open vendors

Open architecture is perhaps the most important element of an rOS that can be rapidly adopted across the industry. Yet, many vendors are taking the exact opposite approach. Some try to lock restaurant operators into their systems by purposely designing them to rely on expensive proprietary hardware that only works with their applications. Others make their APIs and SDKs available, but at a cost so high that startup developers can’t afford them.

Both approaches create impenetrable barriers to the adoption of innovative, and often superior, third-party solutions. To avoid getting trapped in one vendor’s technology web and to keep options open, operators should ensure their solution and service providers—especially POS, payment and payroll processing, gift and loyalty and enterprise reporting—are ready, willing and able to integrate with other solutions from different vendors.

Stay hardware independent

Investing in hardware is rarely an inexpensive endeavor. Because of this, most operators are cautious when it comes to upgrading existing equipment or implementing new solutions, and rightly so. But in certain circumstances, these decisions can’t, or shouldn’t, wait.

The explosion of mobile consumer technologies has created powerful new tools that could significantly improve restaurant operations. It would be a disservice to the industry if value-driven solutions designed to take advantage of these new technologies were to be squelched just to extend the life of 1990s hardware and software architectures. As they evaluate options for business services, it’s in operators’ best interests to stay hardware independent—meaning they’re not reliant on one specific piece of equipment—so they’re not chained with golden handcuffs to equipment that will almost certainly be antiquated in a few years.

If it’s “free,” don’t buy it

You know the expression that there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Well, there’s no such thing as a free POS system either. Yet thousands of cash-strapped operators, desperately in need of system upgrades, have ignored their best instincts and taken the bait—signing long-term payment processing contracts with draconian early termination clauses and no cap on processing rates in exchange for their “free” systems. Worse yet, by locking in their POS for up to seven years, they’ve automatically shut themselves out of the market for new innovations, virtually guaranteeing that their POS will be obsolete years before they’re in a position to replace it.

As operators continue to wait for the rOS to become reality, the business environment will continue to rapidly evolve, requiring technology upgrades and enhancements. By preparing now for the future of restaurant technology, they can ensure they are making sound, long-term decisions that will enable them to take full advantage of the benefits of the rOS, and stay ahead of their competition without reinventing their businesses.

Tony Ventre is the product marketing director for Heartland Payment Systems’ Hospitality Solutions group, which develops payment processing, payroll and marketing solutions for the restaurant and lodging industries.