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Speaking in Code: From Basic Black Bars to QR and Colorful Tags

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The bar code has a much longer history than you probably realize.

The Universal Product Code, or U.P.C., that we know from retail checkout systems was developed by the US grocery industry in the early 1970s; but, this sort of linear bar code (or 1D bar code as some now refer to it) actually had its origins 25 years earlier as an attempt to track railroad freight cars.

Inspiration apparently came from Morse code. Looking at the dots and dashes of some code drawn in the sand, the inventor just extended the dots and dashes downward and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them. Another code designed at this time took a bulls eye design, but the linear code carried the advantage of being able to print it in the direction of the lines – ensuring that ink smears just meant longer lines and not unreadable codes.

Last year, Google recognized the 57th anniversary of the first patent on the bar code with one of their Google doodles:

Today, NASA relies on bar codes to monitor the thousands of heat tiles that need to be replaced after every space shuttle trip, and the movement of nuclear waste is tracked with a bar-code inventory system. Researchers have even placed tiny bar codes on individual bees to track the insects' mating habits!

And last time I traveled via air, I used my smart phone to display a code as my boarding pass at both the main airport security point and the gate.

This was a 2D code, though – a new breed of codes that provide more data representation with a two-dimensional way of representing information.

One of the most common, especially in Japan, is known as a QR (Quick Response) code. Initially developed by a subsidiary of Toyota for car parts management, it has lately been popping up all over the globe and is beginning to expand beyond its basic black and white.

But, the QR code has a strong competitor: the multicolor Microsoft Tag.

Microsoft announced last month that 2 billion Tags have been printed since the January 2009 launch, and 1 billion of those Tags were printed in the past four months. And, Microsoft Tag has some distinct advantages over QR code, strongest among them being the analytics and reporting capabilities to understand what's happening with your code and make adjustments in real time.

So why all this interest in codes? Well, every month at Dell we distribute printed catalogs to our Small and Medium Business customers around the world. Print still plays an important part in reaching people, but we also want to make it easier to connect the offline and online worlds.

To connect those catalog readers from paper pages to far more immersive digital experiences, we've recently begun incorporating Microsoft Tag technology in our U.S. catalogs:

Why Tag instead of QR? Well, as one Engadget reporter pointed out the "multi-colored (and, frankly, rather attractive) Tag bar codes added a few important innovations on top of the general QR code concept."
When you want to put a lot of information in a small space, Tag provides increased data density by using a palette of 4 or 8 colors for the triangles. Some GPS-equipped phones can, at the user's option, send coordinate data along with the Tag data, allowing location-specific information to be returned.

That's new territory that we've not yet explored; but, should this U.S. pilot of Tag in our catalogs prove successful, there's no telling where we could take this and expand the link between print and online. We’ve also not yet explored scannable clothing, as Tom Martin recently experimented with, but who knows?

In the meantime, if you receive a Dell catalog for small businesses, watch for the Tags. Then download the free Microsoft Tag reader application to your Internet-capable mobile device with camera and check out what happens next!

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