Barcodes are dead. Long live the barcode!

I’ve noticed a mindless consensus among the geek literati when talking about QR Codes. Often a blog post will discuss the various uses they are put to, then end with the phrase ‘But I think that NFC will replace them in the near future’.

Bullshit.

I have an RFID system in my library. My long term experience in libraries is with barcodes. I’ve already done the QR Code vs NFC dance. While both have their advantages, I think the two technologies are complementary, not competitive. And barcodes have the advantage.

The cost of production for barcodes is ink and paper. They have a standard protocol for communication between the reader and the computer. I can plug a barcode reader into a USB port and scan off the raw numbers on the barcodes into Excel.

I can make a barcode whenever I want using standard office products. If I’m enthusiastic I can decode what a barcode means with a Mark 1 Eyeball. This simplicity of communication between printed text and computer systems is the major advantage of barcodes

The major problems with barcodes is the bandwidth and the data storage. Laser scanning is a little slow, and the few bits you can store in a printed barcode are not really sufficient.

Using barcodes as identifiers, then pulling the rest of the information from a networked system solves the bandwidth and information storage problem.

RFID tags cannot just replicate what barcodes do. If I’m using a NFC tag to point to a URL, what’s the point? The $1 NFC tag sticker pointing to that URL is redundant when it can be duplicated by my printer as part of the standard design for a few cents in design fees and ink.

RFID will work in a few crucial areas.

  1. The offline data requirements are of a larger size than what can be accommodated in a barcode.
  2. You need to avoid the one-at-a-time scan bottlenecks of barcodes.
  3. You need to track the location of a tagged item at all times.
  4. You have two networked devices (say POS and smartphone) that need to communicate securely only in a specific place. (and Facecash proves that QR codes work just fine for this)

RFID stickers will not replace the barcode.

NFC Point of Sale devices have promise, and are actually in use already with many tap-to-pay services. Industry and government will continue to use RFID in the locations where it works. NFC will probably revolutionize device-to-device communication.

For you and me, the easiest way to get information from print to computer will still be some variation of the barcode.

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