Amazon Heads Off Barcode Comparison Shoppers
By Carlo Longino, Tue Nov 23 20:15:00 EET 2004

Amazon Japan is offering a new service that lets users scan barcodes with their cameraphones, then search its site for the item and compare prices -- a major step to cut off similar third-party services.

Using cameraphones for price comparisons isn't anything new. Several companies have released applications that let users snap pictures of products' barcodes, then look up pricing information on various sites -- some of them even using Amazon, and attempting to generate revenues from associate and referral programs. Google's Froogle price-search engine has also gone wireless for users without cameraphones, in both WAP and SMS versions. The SMS service was recently updated, as well, to allow searches by ISBN number for books, and UPC code for other products. And there are, of course, the QR barcodes that are becoming ubiquitous in Japan and being used for a much wider array of applications than commerce, but the ability to use a cameraphone to read the barcodes already on products is an interesting proposition for consumers.

Russell Buckley over at The Mobile Technology Weblog rightly points out that while the Amazon effort certainly isn't the first in this space, it's the most important up to this point, thanks to the company's familiarity and popularity among consumers, as well as its tremendous marketing muscle. He also points out that things might not be as bad for retailers as they may first seem -- the savings the service offers will have to be significant enough to make using it worthwhile, and the other value it delivers to end users must be worthwhile, particularly if users have to pay their carrier to access it.

But another takeaway here is that third-party services probably won't stand a chance against the major online retailers in this space. Perhaps as aggregators, that search multiple sites for the lowest price, but given the interest of Google there, it's unlikely too. The focus for companies in this space should be on developing their technology and white-label applications that can be customized for a client -- be it Amazon or Froogle, another online retailer or pricing service or even carriers.

But while the interest will be around retailing and price comparison because that's where the money is most easily seen, there are opportunities for developers to capitalize on offering access to other kinds of information. People with severe food allergies could be interested in scanning barcodes to find out if certain products contain ingredients to which they're sensitive, and some consumers might be interested in other information about certain products.

There are myriad other applications for this technology, too -- an online movie-rental service like Netflix could let subscribers scan barcodes of DVDs to add them to their rental queue, or music download sites could similarly use it, so that when someone scans in a CD barcode, they purchase the music for download (that gets exciting when you think of how it could be integrated into mobile downloads, with users going to a record store to browse CDs and scan the barcodes to get the music sent to their device).

Developers in this space will do well to focus on technology, rather than services -- refine barcode scanning so it will work across many types of devices, and make applications and backends flexible enough to be used across a wide spectrum of services.