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Think Big. Move Fast.

The NYT published an article about barcodes for cellphones in yesterday’s Sunday Times. The article does a good job summarizing many of the benefits of using your cell phone as a barcode scanner that can translate specialized two-dimensional barcodes from print or other offline media into some piece of digital information – a URL, a coupon, a ticket, etc. We think the concept is long overdue – barcodes and cellphones can bridge the offline world with the online world in many compelling ways. But frankly, we were surprised to even see an article in reference to barcode use in the US, as we believe the structural nature of the wireless industry here will keep us from enjoying the benefits of cellphone barcodes for a long time to come.

It will be difficult, as the article points out, for barcodes to enjoy widespread use if a client download is required to make things work. This is where the carriers can significantly accelerate adoption, by getting their handset vendors to pre-load the software onto phones so that barcode functionality comes by default. But alas, what’s in it for the carriers? More data traffic? A cut of advertising revenue?

Surely there are multiple business models that could make sense for carriers to offer barcode services, but that’s where the coordination issue comes in. Today, there are multiple standards for barcode technologies and multiple ways to implement those solutions on handsets. Would Canon want to run a magazine ad for its latest camcorder featuring a “for more information” barcode that could only be read by Sprint subscribers? Maybe, but that’s not nearly as compelling as if they could use a single barcode that would be accessible to any mobile subscriber, regardless of carrier. Think of it like a URL. Imagine if each website had to have a different URL depending on which ISP its users were coming through. At this point in the US, there is no equivalent of ICANN for barcodes, so there is no standardization and no coordination around this concept, which means, in our opinion, that US mobile subscribers will be cheated out of a very compelling and convenient user experience for quite awhile.

It’s a shame, really, but contrast this to China, where we think barcodes have a much better shot of making it to prime time. Lightspeed invested in a cellphone barcode company based in Beijing called Gmedia. We think the China market has a few key ingredients for the success of barcodes. First, China Mobile accounts for roughly 80% of the 400M+ wireless subscribers in the country. If you can strike a relationship with China Mobile, as Gmedia has for the “DM Code” flavor of barcodes, much of the coordination issue gets solved – China Mobile’s choice becomes the de facto standard. Advertisers can rest assured that if they go to the trouble of putting barcodes in their ads, most cellphone users will be able to use them. Second, China has almost 3x as many cellphone subscribers as broadband users, and the handset is the communications and internet device of choice for most people. Gmedia’s solution makes surfing the mobile web a heck of a lot more convenient than keying in URLs on a number pad. See an ad with a barcode, scan it, and your phone’s browser automatically takes you to the right destination on the web – no keying required. Finally, if China Mobile gets behind barcodes, it can exert alot of pressure on handset makers to pre-load the barcode software on handsets, which will be a pre-requisite for getting advertisers excited about incorporating barcodes into their ad campaigns. Nothing like the potential to reach 400M new customers with a new hook to motivate some experimentation.  China Mobile is poised to start exerting that pressure this year, so hopefully the barcode flywheel will start spinning in China very soon.

  • http://kanai.net/weblog/ Gen Kanai

    Here’s the thing about QR codes, which have been mainstream in Japan for years: 1) they are an open standard technology (ISO/IEC18004) so anyone can create/use them, 2) after a number of years they are fairly widely available but not used that often, 3) most of the phones come with the QR code recognition software by default (this is a MUST), 4) the greatest challenge seems to be changing user behavior.

    I read that NYT piece with more than a bit of skepticism. Louise Story isn’t on the ground in Japan afaik (Fackler is, but hasn’t been in Japan long enough to realize that QR codes have not been the revolution that was hoped for).

    All that said, mobile culture is not the same around the world, and just because QR codes have not taken off in Japan (just my opinion, they’re widely available but I rarely see usage) does not mean that they won’t elsewhere.

  • http://www.gsoftmedia.com Gopi

    A much more compelling application of this would be offline comparison shopping. IMO this really has the power to change the retail landscape!.

  • Pingback: Thoughts on Code Scanning « Mobile Meanderings

  • Swampthing

    Brilliant.

    What if the barcodes that link to objects on the mobile web were keywords, logos, trademarks, 1D, QR, data matrix, all 2D symbologies, slogans, RFID, billboards, etc.?

    Then you may have a mobile platform named Qode.

    Some once called this the next “killer app.”

  • http://www.barcodesoft.com Barcode Software

    I wonder that after 10 months if we are now ready for this kind of technology? Any progress or reports?

  • james braselton

    WELL THIS YEAR JUST MIGHT BE DIFFERENT BECUASE THERE ARE ABOUT 20 BRAND NEW CELLPHONES FOR 2008 WITH VERY POWER FULL CPUS AND LOTS OF FLASH MEMORY AND BIG HIGH RESOLUTION 3 INCH TOUCH SCREENS LIKE THE 3G IPHONE 2 AND SPRINT INSTINCT WILL BE OUT IN JUNE IF YOU DO BUY A NEW 2008 CELLPHONE YOU SHOULD DIFFENTLY TRY OUT A CELLPHONE GAME

  • http://ultrareview.blogspot.com Tom Schavo

    Hey having bar code is a good option. That way things can be tracked better and legal problems would be descreased. I believe from nov 2008, US too is going to implement it. Sooner or later, you got to do this!

  • http://www.2d-barcode-scanners.com Barcode Scanners

    Maybe I´m a bit late with my post.
    I would like to tell you that as of today (jul-2010) not much has changed.
    Still waiting for a full implementation.
    I don´t know why the industry is acting that slow on this.
    I can see a huge demand.