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About Barcodes and Mobile Phones

Decode seemingly random dots or lines on a piece of paper, product or billboard--and get hidden information others aren't privy to. This may sound like something from a James Bond movie, but you might already have the technology in your pocket or purse to do just that. A few clicks on your mobile phone can give you access to important and timely information--including videos, pictures and info-packed text files---instantly on your phone's screen. Japan has had barcode-scanning technology for a few years. And now, the United States and Europe are catching up. Most new 4G and top-of-the-line cell phones carry the means to scan barcodes, but if you have an older 3G, 2G or even 1G phone with a camera and Internet access, the evolving wave of information could be a click away. So, you're saying, "Big deal, I can scan barcodes with my cell phone--so what?" Well, it is a big deal. A quick scan of a barcode could save money on purchases, help find bus routes and schedules, make creating and texting items on grocery lists a breeze and provide information on products in real-time as if you were standing in the store. With a few clicks, you can get details on products discussed in articles, enter contact information directly into your phone without typing a single character, watch movie trailers by scanning a movie poster or ad, obtain store hours or phone numbers, review menus without entering the restaurant--the list goes on. Where this technology meets brick-and-mortar shopping, you'll often find items locally for less and perhaps get a price reduction at your favorite stores. You can also instantly compare in-store prices to those online. After you decide on the best product for you, you can use your debit and credit cards more safely and securely. The U.S. market potential is huge. According to figures by Forrester Research in the New York Times, about one-third of U.S. households own a cell phone with a camera, the only physical equipment you need. Few people, however, have downloaded scanning software, something likely to change as consumers get savvier and cell phones evolve. In Japan, many consumers take advantage of this technology. The New York Times reports that about 10 percent of those who fly domestically on All Nippon Airways use the codes instead of paper tickets. Highway billboards contain codes large enough to read in passing, and hospitals use it for medical information and prescriptions. A consumer in Japan can even scan the barcode on any McDonald's wrapper and immediately get a meal's nutritional details. Developers create new applications almost daily, many of which are free.


Barcodes come in two basic varieties: 1D (dimension) and 2D. A 1D barcode, often called a UPC code or Universal Product Code, is the standard barcode you see on all products. The spaces between the black bars in 1D barcodes correspond to about 20 characters that scanners pick up and read. These codes allow a computer to look up a product and get the price so the cash register can ring you up. A 1D barcode helps you to do price comparisons for the same product. A 2D barcode, on the other hand, contains up to 7,000 characters and can store contact information, website addresses, shipping information and other details about an item, store or person. Situations requiring shipping, packaging, inventory and industries that must track products quickly and efficiently use these codes. A 2D barcode has many names, including Mobile Barcodes, Data Matrix, Cool-Data-Matrix, Aztec, Upcode, Trillcode, Quickmark, shotcode, mCode and Beetagg. The barcode used in mobile phone applications is often called a Quick Response code, or QR code. The QR code works for anything other than a basic product search and price lookup. If someone places a QR code on a business card, for example, a prospective customer can quickly scan all contact information directly into a cell phone without having to type in anything by hand. QR codes can appear on billboards, T-shirts, signs, posters, in art galleries or in magazines and newspapers--just about anywhere additional information might benefit a consumer.

Mobile Barcode Applications

Examples of applications for Web price comparisons include Red Laser, ScanLife and ShopSavvy (ShopSavvy even allows you to find local retailers, get directions and a map or call a business directly from the app). PackRat helps you inventory your music, movies, games or any other items that have barcodes. FoodEssentials Scanner scans products to see how much sugar they contain and whether the items have allergens; it even allows you to create a customized list of more than 35,000 ingredients. You can go through your cabinets with Grocery iQ and scan barcodes of items you want to buy, build a shopping list and text that list to someone (who also has a Grocery iQ-enabled phone) who can then scan and check the items off the list at the store. With the rate of production on applications that use this technology, expect to see advancements in this field. Even if your phone doesn't currently support an application, it's likely just a matter of time: The more popular an application becomes, the more platforms it is developed on.

You Barcoded

The future of barcodes and mobile phone applications is almost unlimited, and one area with great potential lies in those apps that offer security, efficiency and peace of mind. For example, downloading an application called FaceCash allows you to type in your bank account information, Social Security and driver's license numbers and upload your picture. When you shop at a retailer that takes FaceCash, you'll bring up your payment information on your phone and the retailer scans the barcode that displays on your screen. Your picture shows on the retailer's screen for verification before charges hit your account. The process is quicker and less expensive for the retailer--and, because no one goes anywhere without a cell phone it seems, you won't have to worry that you left your bank card at home.

Barcode Future

Future barcodes might go by the name "Bokode." Bokodes--tiny LEDs (light-emitting diodes) about 3 mm in diameter--can hold much more information than conventional barcodes. Bar codes require a close distance to read, but Bokodes allow a greater distance. To read a Bokode, just point your phone at the business or item and the information transmits instantly to your phone. If you drive down the street and see an interesting restaurant or store, simply point your mobile phone toward the building and you can read menus, find out about current sales and peruse other available information without ever leaving your car.

Consumer Buy-In

Some expert chatter focuses on whether U.S. consumers will buy into the technology. Erik Linask of the technology and communications website writes that the barcode technology increases interaction between users and vendors while offering companies new ways to monetize products. The revenue link might make some U.S. consumers wary, however. But once users see the technology's convenience, Linask explains, acceptance is likely to follow. With more than 1 billion cell phones sold last year (almost 15 percent of them smart phones), the Apple Store selling millions' worth of smart phone applications each month, and watching the explosion of this technology in Japan, reading barcodes with your mobile phone is a technology that seems here to stay.

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