Barcodes QR codes: the barcode is 50 years old, but its days may be numbered

The patch of irregular vertical lines that revolutionized supermarket ordering and fueled the globalization of retail is 50 years old.

But since the barcode celebrates its birthday on a Monday, its days may be numbered as it faces competition from younger QR codes filled with information-filled squares used in smartphones.

The beep of a trademark when a product is scanned is heard about six billion times a day around the world, as about 70,000 products are sold every second.

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

The barcode not only identifies the product, but also “gives shop professionals access to other features,” said Lawrence Vallana, head of France de SES-Imagotag, a company that specializes in electronic tagging.

Chewing gum for fruits

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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 moved on to commercializing it.

On April 3, 1973, a number of major retailers and food companies agreed on a standard for product identification. It later became known as EAN-13, which stands for the European article number and the number of digits in the barcode.

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

Today, the non-governmental organization Global Standard 1 operates the barcode system and has about two million firms as members.

It provides companies with a unique “Global Trade Item Number” for each product, which is then converted into a barcode. Each firm must pay an annual fee based on their sales, up to nearly $5,000 per year.

From bars to QR

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

A new standard based on a QR or quick response code will be introduced around 2027.

If critics of the over-commercialization of society compare barcodes to prison bars, then the Chinese game of Go, with its white and black pieces on a square board, was the inspiration for the Japanese creator of the QR code, Masahiro Hara.

Designed in 1994, QR codes can contain much more information, since they are read both horizontally, like barcodes, and vertically.

Instead of searching a database for product information, a QR code can directly integrate information such as product composition and processing instructions.

GS1 believes that the transition to the QR code format allows for the sharing of much more information about products as well as content, opening up new uses that will be available to both consumers and retailers.

Because smartphones can read QR codes, they are an easy way to send people to websites for more information, which has led to their widespread adoption by companies, artists, and even museums. They are even used by payment systems.

But barcodes are likely to remain in place for years to come as the world slowly transitions to QR codes.

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