Barcode turns 50 but its days may be numbered

The mosaic of irregular vertical lines that revolutionized supermarket checkouts and facilitated the globalization of retail is celebrating its 50th anniversary.


But as the barcode celebrates its birthday on Monday, its days could be numbered as it faces competition from the younger QR code, the information-filled squares used in smartphones.

The brand beep when a product is scanned is heard around six billion times a day across the world, as around 70,000 items are sold every second.

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It has become so integrated into the shopping experience that it is easy to forget how technology has revolutionized retail by speeding up the checkout process and giving retailers the ability to trace products and better manage inventory.

The barcode not only makes it possible to identify a product, but “gives in-store professionals access to other functionalities”, specifies Laurence Vallana, France manager of SES-Imagotag, a company specializing in electronic marking.

fruit chewing gum

Barcodes were originally patented by Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver in the United States in 1952.

But it wasn’t until nearly two decades later, in 1971, that American engineer George Laurer perfected the technology and commercialization began.

On April 3, 1973, the Product Identification Standard was approved by a number of major retailers and food companies. It later became known as EAN-13, which stands for European Article Number and the number of digits in the barcode.

The following year, on June 26 in the US state of Ohio, the first product was scanned: a packet of chewing gum that is now in the National Museum of American History in Washington.

Today, the non-governmental organization Global Standard 1 manages the barcode system and has approximately two million member companies.

It provides businesses with a unique “Global Trade Item Number” for each product, which is then translated into barcodes. Each company must pay an annual fee based on its sales, up to nearly $5,000 per year.

From bars to QRs

But the humble barcode will soon give way to another standard developed by the organization, said Renaud de Barbuat and Didier Veloso, heads of GS1 Global and GS1 France respectively.

The new standard, based on QR, or Quick Response Code, will be introduced around 2027.

While barcodes have been compared to prison bars by critics of society’s over-commercialization, the Chinese game Go with its white and black pieces on a square board inspired Japanese QR code creator Masahiro Hara.

Developed in 1994, QR codes can hold a lot more information because they are read both horizontally, like barcodes, and vertically.

Instead of having to search a database for information to accompany a product, the QR code can directly embed information, such as product composition and recycling instructions.

GS1 believes the move to QR code format allows much more product information to be shared as well as content, enabling new uses that will be accessible to consumers as well as retailers.

Because smartphones can read QR codes, they’re an easy way to send people to websites for additional information, leading to their widespread adoption by businesses, artists, and even museums. They are even used by payment systems.

But barcodes will likely stick around for years as the world gradually shifts to QR codes.

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