The global trade group GS1 has begun putting together a working group that would create an industry standard to combine traditional linear barcodes, 2D barcodes, mobile commerce and other barcode symbols required by law. The change would drive billions of dollars through a variety of industries that support technology required to build out this software and hardware infrastructure.
Combining these tasks into one barcode could also save companies billions of dollars on branding and marketing campaigns. The same barcode that retailers would use at Point of Sale (PoS) checkout terminals, consumer packages goods (CPG) companies could use for marketing and branding campaigns.
While proprietary technology platforms typically are implemented faster, this GS1 standards group will attempt to design a system that supports tasks in countries worldwide. "We talk in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars when building business cases to justify these changes," explains Scott Gray, a global business manager and technology leader for GS1's automatic identification and data capture (ADIC). "Whenever you want to change the world, I always say plan on a 10-year journey."
The debate involves whether to nix the linear barcode and create a new barcode that a variety of image-based devices can scan, from PoS terminals to camera phones. Although there are some exceptions, such as Google Goggles that reads images, mobile phone technology available today scans traditional barcodes and turns that unique number into an application-based URL. Through a mobile browser, the unique string gives companies the ability to direct consumers to specific information about the product.
Gray says more than one barcode on a product creates "symbol pollution" that takes away from the company's packaging and branding efforts. Few search, marketing and advertising agency executives are familiar with the organization GS1, yet the group provides industry standards for mobile, ecommerce and retail.
If successful that one barcode would allow companies to brand, market, advertise, track goods through supply chains, enable mobile commerce, provide additional data to consumers, allow retailers to integrate inventory and point-of-sale data, and allow healthcare to have the information required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The biggest problem remains the fact that mobile handsets, computer systems, servers, and PoS and inventory systems do not support one barcode. Plus, the industry lacks image-based PoS checkout scanners. "If there were commercially available image-based checkout scanners, it would still take about 10 years to replace them worldwide if there was a regularity mandate," Gray says. "Otherwise, it could take as long as 15 to 20 years before you would see a complete implementation across the world. And I'm not just pulling those numbers out of some random hat."
The GS1 group, Managing Multiple Barcodes, aims to create one barcode, but barriers exist. For starters, companies continue to work independently to find a solution. Changing the world requires modifying the infrastructure. And while the industry lacks high-speed imaging-based technology for retail checkout counters, Gray -- declining to elaborate -- knows engineers continue to work on solving that problem.
Still, businesses don't address infrastructure upgrades similar to the way they tacked the Y2K issue in 1999. And to get CIOs to move on that change regulators had to tell them "airplanes would drop out of the sky if they didn't change the date code," Gray says. Hospitals, pharmacies, small- and medium--sized businesses, retail stores and others want to stretch every dollar and use existing equipment until it no longer works.
The good news is that GS1 has about 1.25 million companies using the trade group's mobile standards that can identify the product unique to the brand from tens of millions of products on shelves today, which creates a good starting point. "You can append that number into a URL, so we're encouraging companies to build applications based on today's linear barcode as this sorts itself out," Gray says.