Home The Scannable World: Mobile Phones As Barcode Scanners

The Scannable World: Mobile Phones As Barcode Scanners

Part 1: Will Barcodes Bridge The Gap Between Reality And The Net?

One of the promises of the mobile web was the possibility of being able to integrate the internet with the real world. One of the ways to accomplish this task is through the use of barcodes. The idea is that you take a picture of the barcode with your camera phone and you’re then delivered to a mobile web site. This could effectively make anything – whether a poster, an ad, or an object – a virtual part of the world wide web. Although this technology has been available for years, it’s only now with the birth of the smartphone, or more precisely, the next-gen smartphone, that the potential for this type of integration may finally be realized.

The Real Smartphones Have Arrived

Smartphones have been around for years, but even though every business worker had a Blackberry glued to their hip, it wasn’t until the iPhone that the true potential of smartphones was realized. These are no longer phones, but tiny, portable computers we fill with our favorite applications. The iPhone paved the way for the next generation of these “computer phones,” but it isn’t your only choice – Google has now entered the game. Yesterday, we saw the launch of the iPhone’s first competitor, the T-Mobile G1. Around the corner both RIM and Windows Mobile are preparing their new phones and OS’s, too.

Now that we have new, usable, app-friendly, and yes, downright fun, mini computers in our pockets, will we began to interact with the real world in different ways? There is that possibility. And one of (supposed) future trends for the mobile web is the scanning of barcodes to interact with real-world objects.

Failures and New Attempts

In 2000, an internet technology startup, Digital Convergence, saw their :CueCat barcodes appear in newspapers and magazines all over the U.S. Unfortunately, this company required a separate piece of hardware in order to read the barcodes, so, as you may have gathered, the technology didn’t quite take off as no one wanted to carry around yet another device for the sole purpose of scanning ads.

Then, at the beginning of this year, Google attempted to revitalize the barcode again. This time, through their Print Ads service. Advertisers can choose to include barcodes that will appear in newspapers and are readable with any camera phone. The Print Ad publisher network from Google provides access to 800 newspapers, representing nearly 70% of all U.S. paid circulation. Although thousands of advertisers have Google Print Ads, the barcodes themselves haven’t hit mainstream usage yet. When asked about conversion rates for barcode “clickthoughs” or the percentage of advertisers using and renewing this service, Google won’t disclose any details. If the program were a raging success, there’s no doubt that those numbers would be happily shared as proof of the technology’s potential.

But we can’t blame Google for wanting to keep quiet about the barcodes and their lack of adoption. This is still very much an emerging technology where success is largely unproven. And in our unstable economy, advertisers may be hesitant to use such a risky and unproven option for their ads.

Newspapers May Be The Wrong Medium

It’s possible that the failure of the barcode to gain traction could be simply a case of marketing to the wrong demographic. Let’s be honest, the people who still take a daily newspaper instead of getting their news via the TV or web aren’t, in general, likely to be the most cutting-edge technology enthusiasts. So, the question remains: how can you get the attention of hippest web users when your scannable barcodes are on paper, not screens? And once you have early adopter involvement, how can this technology go mainstream?

In part two of this post, continued tomorrow, we’ll look at a company that thinks they may have that answer…stay tuned.

See also: The Scannable World, Part 2: Scanning Your Web Printouts
The Scannable World, Part 3: Barcode Scanning In The Real World

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