Sometimes an advanced technical development looks so simple, and becomes so common, that even engineers—not to mention the general public—assume it just happened and was always so. So it is with the now-ubiquitous bar code, used on products and so much more—and which first saw commercial use in 1974.
I thought about this because of two recent items: one is the passing last week of the champion of bar codes and coding, Alan Haberman; you can read an interesting New York Times obituary here (free, but registration may be required); and the other was an article in The Wall Street Journal here about a hot new trend of so-called “designer” bar codes—and some of them are quite creative, despite (or may due to) the confines of the bar-code standard.
The point which the obituary makes clear, and that we know but sometimes forget, is that it is not enough to just have a better idea or a working model to achieve success and market penetration. It takes a champion, an evangelist, a tireless promoter (I mean “promoter” in the positive sense, not a scam artist). Today, bar codes are used for much more than just store checkout; I am sure you can make your own list of unusual places you have seen them.
Many times, it takes a lot of back and forth effort, to resolve the “which came first”, so-called chicken-and-egg dilemma: why should I use bar codes if there are no scanners in place, versus why should I put scanners in place if there are no bar codes? It’s the challenge of the evangelist to find those early adopters who are willing to take a chance, and also to get wider buy-in and help set standards where needed.
In the case of the bar code, adoption was eased by the fact that the production cost of putting it on a product package is pretty much zero, since every product or box gets something printed on it anyway. Even today, as bar codes are used for “special” purposes such as making wrist tags for hospital patients, the cost to print that tag and wrist bracelet is pretty low. Plus, the bar code has an advantage over all-electronic tags in that the numbers that the bars represent are printed underneath, so the coding is human-readable as well.
What bar codes also did, though we don’t often acknowledge it, is also drive scanning technology. While the first scanners were large and crude—though effective--today’s standard store scanner is usually a rugged, well-designed package of laser beam, scanning mirror assembly, and light sensor. Other scanners are in use, too, including close-in hand-held ones which use LEDs, lightweight wireless ones, ones which scan at a far distance, or which can work in harsh industrial applications. Certainly, scanning of bar codes has driven a lot of mass-market electromechanical and electrooptical design, much of then gets adopted and modified by unrelated applications.
There is one aspect of bar codes which is very different from many new information and data-transfer technologies. TV, for example, required development of complex new components, circuits, systems, production techniques, and overall infrastructure for both its transmit and receive ends of the link, and these two ends are very different in almost all respects. Bar codes, in contrast, had the benefit that the technical issues of the “encoding side” were relatively simple, and most of the technical work (as distinct from the industry adoption) had to be done only on the decode side, in developing scanners coupled with low-cost computers, and with database and lookup software.
Then there’s RFID. Yes, in some ways, it is an alternative to the printed bar code, and has seen success in some areas where the benefits are enough to justify the cost. I’m not dismissing RFID, and it certainly has its place, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing an RFID tag on every pack of gum at the store for a very long time, if ever.
What intrigues me about printed bar codes is how they have become so much more to us than what they were originally intended for, and how they have spurred scanner and related technologies as well. There are a lot of lessons to be learned and re-learned here for anyone with a “better” idea, by looking at how the technology was developed, adopted, and popularized. Further, it’s a good reminder of the laws of unintended and unforeseen consequences, in both the markets and technologies.
Can you think of any others which have similar ripples? ♦