This week marks the 60th birthday of the first patent filing for a technology that is very close to our hearts here in the VDC AutoID practice: barcode. To most people, a barcode is nothing but a bunch of black and white lines on the products they purchase at the store, but for us—the AutoID professionals and enthusiasts of the world—the barcode is an efficient, elegant and cost-effective way of storing and accessing data that has stood the test of time.
In the technology world, 60 years is an eternity. Reflect briefly on the devices/ technologies that seemed cutting edge just 10 or 15 years ago, and we bet you will smile reminiscing about the simpler days of dial-up modems, Zack Morris-style cell phones and good old PDAs. Now consider that barcode existed for decades before all of these things, and that it is still alive and well today. In many ways, it is a notable achievement. While barcode is certainly a mature technology, we see a strong future ahead for the barcode market, thanks to its ongoing evolution and the development of vertical- and application-specific uses. VDC sees a other indicators of barcode’s vitality:
- Increased consumer use of mobile barcode for a range of commerce-related applications including couponing, loyalty, information access and even payment. Demonstrated consumer interest in scanning barcodes via their smartphones is driving retailers, hospitality providers, CPG brands and other consumer-facing enterprises to invest in solutions that engage these shoppers.
- The US FDA’s Unique Device Identifier (UDI) mandate will increase barcode adoption (and other AutoID solutions) in healthcare: The federal UDI mandate, set to take effect in 2014 for high-risk (i.e., implantable) medical devices (and subsequently for lower-risk categories) requires all medical devices to be marked with a unique code containing critical information including manufacturer, model number and expiration date. While we expect barcode will not be the only solution used to comply with this regulation, it is highly likely to play a prominent role.
- New symbologies have recently emerged, and others are in development. Han Xin Code and Ultracode, for example, are two of the most recently introduced barcode types. Han Xin codes were developed to encode large numbers of Chinese, numeric and ASCII characters, and can be printed in multiple sizes, while Ultracode was designed for printing on uneven surfaces that are poorly-suited to standard symbologies. We expect additional symbologies could emerge in the future to address specific requirements, particularly for consumer-facing applications.
Some NFC and RFID evangelists claim these technologies will ultimately lead to the demise of the barcode. VDC does not expect that to happen, nor do we expect any major market shift away from barcode to occur anytime soon. Barcode has a lot of momentum and will be extremely difficult to displace: it is universally supported, highly cost-effective (from both a printing and hardware/solution perspective), familiar to consumers and enterprises and boasts 40 years of proven experience in retail—barcode was first tested by Kroger Supermarkets in 1972, 20 years after its invention. The “scanless”/contactless future NFC and RFID promise could very well become reality someday far from now, but for the time being, we expect barcode to remain dominant in most applications. Happy birthday, barcode…