In the mid nineties, Symbol Technologies' PDF417 2D symbology emerged as a printable reliable data carrier. 1D symbologies usually store a reference number (record ID/key) which requires a scan to the computer system to get the related record's data. 2D barcodes, on the other hand, can store the record itself within the printed symbology. As a simple example, older travel boarding passes had a passenger number only encoded either as a magnetic stripe and/or 1D barcode, while a 2D symbology carries most of the passenger's data such as his name, flight number, airline, seat number, gate, etc.
Boarding pass with 2D code
Brief History and Developments:
There was a competition in the early period among several 2D barcode developers to come up with an ideal symbology that was easy to print, scan and retrieve their data. That competition is still ongoing to this day. Many developments end up with new symbologies that are powerful at certain aspects (compactness, different language encoding, or flexibility of printing and data size, just to name few aspects). Laser reading was the dominant reading technology while imaging technology was at the infancy stage. Initially, 2D readers were first priced at $3000.
During the past two decades, there have been major changes happening in this industry:
1- 2D symbologies spread in use worldwide in all sorts of applications whether it is in logistics, retail, security, or document processing.
2- The fast development and growth of image based scanning technologies with fast decoding and the ability to capture photographic images with dramatic drops in costs. Today we can find an imager sold at $100.
3- Printing technologies have been improving with higher resolutions using desktop laser, inkjet and thermal label printers. Production lines inkjets improved in quality of printing as well. Laser marking (DPM: direct product marking) has been spreading with the ability to print 2D codes on paper or metals.
4- Rugged handheld devices integrated 2D scan engines allowing for scanning 2D barcodes in the working field.
5- Smartphones started to integrate in cameras as an essential feature; camera resolutions are increasing day after day. Some third party software developers made minor apps to scan simple barcodes. However, reading performance was not acceptable and required moving phone to or away from the barcode to reach the ideal scanning distance and focus angle.
6- With the drop of prices of barcode scanners (both 1D and 2D), specialized compact barcode scanners become more wide spread in hands of consumers (such as scanning shopping list grocery items at home) given they were previously in the hands of mainly professional staff in retail, warehouses, or offices.
7- 2D symbology got more adoption as they were shared, displayed and scanned off electronic displays (PC monitors, mobile displays, and bill boards).
8- RFID was accelerating in development and implementation with gradually decreasing cost. Although RFID chip can store a full data record within, 2D symbologies remained in use as their printing costs nothing on identification labels.
Current 2D barcodes Growth of use:
There is more than one leading developer of smartphone apps. These apps scan any barcode 1D and 2D symbology even if it is poorly printed. They use the mobile's camera instead of a barcode scan engine.
Given earlier smartphone apps performed poorly on reading barcodes, newer high performance apps can bring the following advantages:
1- Many business companies (or law enforcement officers) can rely on using their smartphones rather than buying a specialized PDA with relatively higher costs.
2- Smartphones are in the hands of most people, thus it allows consumers to scan barcodes easily at no cost and no training is required. This allows retailers to bring their customers apps for faster shopping, product selection, product info lookup, price checking, promotion coupons, and loyalty codes, etc.
3- About every other year a new 2D symbology is reviewed and published. It is easier to update the app decoders and to release to all users unlike regular barcode scanners that rarely have firmware updates for new symbologies. Furthermore, apps like this can read many DPM barcodes which usually need special version barcode readers.
4- It is estimated that there are currently two billion smartphone users. Let us imagine all sorts of applications that can use 2D codes for various applications such as reading location codes, commercial coupons, or tradeshow registration tickets, to name a few. There will be a revolution in the number of apps and developing companies.
5- Some apps claims zero-miss reading in all of circumstances of any symbology. This is a great feature compared to regular barcode readers that are not capable of reading any poorly printed code. Such readers used to have special versions named as "fuzzy logic" or "puzzle solver" and at a premium prices.
6- Despite the wide use of NFC in mobiles, 2D codes remain in effect. Most smartphones have cameras but not all have NFC readers. Additionally, it is easier and less costly issuing and implementing 2D codes than making NFC chips for consumers.
Printing barcodes along label texts costs almost nothing. Scanners cost nothing since they are part of their personal smartphone. With two billion smartphones in hand, manufacturers, retailers, officers, developers, and users are all invited to revolutionize.
About the Author:
I have been implementing automatic identification, data capture technologies, and mobility for 20 years in domains of retail, logistics, government and security. The accumulated experience and continuous follow up on latest emerging technologies help me to contribute writings about current trends and highlight challenge. I welcome all comments.
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