Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Barcodes and Cellphones - A Commentary

So what are barcodes ?

Found this definition of a linear barcode in the glossary section of Barcodesinc .

"Information encoded into a pattern of varying-width parallel bars and spaces. The most common symbologies used in the retail environment are UPC-A for merchandise marking and Code 128 for shipping containers. Other symbologies include Plessey Code 39, Interleaved 2 of 5 and EAN/JAN. "

This is the best definition I could find on the web that wasnt biased to a particular type of barcode. To most people barcodes are a series of black lines on a white background that are present on the packaging of almost everything worthwhile that they buy from a retail store.

Although, these barcodes ( referred to as linear barcodes) are the most commonly seen there is another breed or class of barcodes - the 2-dimensional barcodes. You can get the complete lowdown on 2D barcodes by doing a simple search on
google. If you want just a basic understanding then this page at barcodeman should be of interest.

Barcodes and Cellphones ... ?
There are 2 main models that I can think of where barcodes can and in some sense are playing a important role.
- Handset to World
- World to Handset

1) Handset to World model.
This model includes applications that exchange information between the handset and a remote server. The aim here is to use the value encoded in a barcode to avoid the user having to enter data on the constrained keypad of the handset. Linear barcodes usually contain a small string of data and need to be patched up to a datastore on the back end. This can be a limiting factor in some applications that cannot afford synchronization with a data store all the time. 2 dimensional barcodes come into the picture here. These barcodes can encode relatively large amounts of data and thus eliminating the need of a data store in some cases.

Enterprise applications like inventory management apps or time tracking applications on the handsets fall into this category. There are 2 ways you can scan a barcode on the handset.
- Use a laser scanner connected to the cell phone/PDA.
- Use the camera on the new cell phones to capture and decode the barcode.

There are quite a few firms providing solutions that enable you to incorporate barcode scanning capability - Symbol, AirClic , Scanbuy, Gavitec, Semacode, Mediaseek, etc ... Personally, I do believe that the best way to go about incorpoting barcode scanning is to go with the camera cell phone approach. Yes, the decoding is not as easy as laser scanners but when you consider the flexibility in the number of devices available and also the cost, laser scanner based solutions kinda fall behind. But, this just my opnion.

2) World to Handset.
This model includes applications that require remote servers to initiate the trasactions by sending information to user's mobile handsets. Marketing, info on deals and coupons are just some applications that fall in this category. There has been a lot of literature published on the web regarding sending coupons etc to cell phones. The basic functionality of the system is very simple. The server(world) sends a barcode and some text describing the deal or the coupon to the users handset. To redeem the coupon the user walks in to the store and the attendent scans the coupon barcode directly from the handsets screen. There are some variations to this basic model available in the market today, a quick search on google will reveal a lot of firms offering this solution.

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