Monday, September 27, 2010

The Beautiful Barcode

by Nate Schubert

Barcodes are so widely in use today that many times, we don't even notice them around us. These unassuming, square or rectangular symbols don't just look pretty, however. A barcode can encode loads of data which can be read and output with a simple barcode scanner or, more recently, a smart phone equipped with a camera-based barcode scanning app.

All Barcodes Are Not The Same

Because different barcode types can encode different amounts (and types) of data, it's important to note their differences. For instance, linear barcodes are rectangular symbols with black lines running vertically like prison-style bars. These barcodes have start and stop characters that tell the barcode scanner where the barcode begins and ends. Some barcodes, like Code 39, require only an asterisk for the start/stop characters while others, like Code 128, require special check digits to be calculated depending on the information encoded in the barcode itself. Linear barcodes are excellent for encoding numbers, letters and even functions such as Tab, Enter and more.

2D barcodes are more complex, two-dimensional square-style barcodes that resemble a checkerboard. These barcodes can often encode large amounts of data, upwards of 800 characters which tends to be more a limitation of the scanner than the actual symbology. Data Matrix is a popular 2D symbology that is in use by many industries for it's small size and parsing-capability via data encoded in the barcode. Additionally, QR Codes have quite possibly become the most mainstream 2D barcode, finding their way into a variety of different global marketing arenas not just to encode data, but to work with smart phone barcode scanning apps that, when scanned, can take you directly to a web URL for a deeper look into the product, event or service.

What Are Barcodes Used For?

Over the years, industries have come up with so many different uses for barcode technology that you can find them implemented in nearly every corner of business. UPC stands for Universal Product Code which is a unique number that identifies a specific product available for sale in retail environments. The UPC Code often contains encoded data referencing the product and price. This practice is not limited to just the retail markets, however, as businesses seek to track documents and other equipment with unique identification barcodes.

Most recently, 2D barcodes have become very useful in marketing where simply scanning them can take your mobile phone device to a web address which may contain a discount or other information specific to you.

What's Next For Barcode Technology?

Over the past few years, RFID technology has been hot on the heels of barcode technology, and many thought it would usurp traditional barcodes as the primary method of tracking. While RFID has been a great benefit to large warehousing and logistical implementations, it has yet to trickle down to Main Street. Moreover, traditional barcodes have seen a resurgence due to their compatibility with barcode scanning apps and their ease-of-use in traditional business environments. The integration of barcodes into everyday work environments should remain consistently strong with a growing level of functionality in marketing and the Internet.

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