The West Warms Up to Barcodes
By Eric Lin, Mon Oct 11 23:45:00 GMT 2004

Now so popular in Japan that they're showing up on t-shirts and in blog entries, barcodes for cameraphones are finally reaching maturity in the West.

Neomedia was the first company to announce it would launch a barcode-reading price comparison application for cameraphones over a year ago. This week Scanbuy, which joined the barcode race shortly after Neomedia, has launched a beta application for a number of smartphones, beating Neomedia to market. Symbian and Treo smartphone users can download and install an application which will allow them to take a picture of a barcode on many books and products and return a price comparison from PriceGrabber or Amazon. The ScanZOOM software is not free. Scanbuy charges $20 for the application and a macro lens adapter to sharpen pictures of small UPC or ISBN codes printed on packaging.

Both Scanbuy and Neomedia would like to extend their platforms so that companies could register a code for their product and return more than just a price. For instance capturing a CD's barcode could return a link to a Rolling Stone review and a short audio clip as well as purchase or price information. In order to enable these scenarios as well as simple price comparisons, both ScanZOOM and Neomedia's solutions require a client application on the handset which must communicate with the company's server in order to translate the barcodes as well as collect the data from it's own servers as well as the other websites.

Semacode, on the other hand, required a client application, but instantly translated the barcode on the device, much like Japan's QR code. A semacode reader cannot process UPC or ISBN barcodes, so it is useless for comparison shopping at present. However anyone can create a semacode, leaving the possibility open for advertising, mobile shopping and more. Semacode's initial advantage was the open accessibility of the bar codes, however semacode now has another advantage. Following in Google's footsteps, semacode has moved the application from the handset to the network. It has developed a server that allows users to send a barcode via MMS and return data via SMS or MMS. Since current barcode applications all require smartphones, this innovation opens up the market to all cameraphones, once again using current cellular technology to achieve computer-like functionality. Demonstrating this new technology in a game sponsored by Qwest (a regional carrier in the US), participants snapped a picture of Semacodes around Minneapolis, Minnesota, sent them via in MMS, and received clues back as SMS.

While ScanZOOM and similar applications have a more immediate usefulness, it is not difficult to see how the simplicity of semacode's new server technology could grow very popular. It opens up barcodes to more users not just because it works with more handsets, but because it takes advantage of modalities and applications they are accustomed to using. However even the simplest application will not succeed without content, and that will be semacode's greatest challenge. Semacode's open platform could be the right environment for a killer application, however it's unlikely to happen without some evangelism to make carriers, developers and users aware of the possibilities.