Microsoft Tags Brings Barcodes to the Phone

StepOne Blog (www.StepOneSystems.com/blog/)

StepOne Systems Blog

One of the big things that cell phones really need is a way to scan barcodes.  Ideally it would be nice to scan in standard barcodes such as UPCs.  But in other cases it would be nice to just enter a single piece of information in to the phone quickely such as URLs, email addresses, etc.  This is where the Microsoft Tag will provide a good solution.

For instance, here is a Microsoft Tag for the StepOne Blog.  I can just print this barcode on my business card, or marketing collateral and a mobile user can just “snap” the image with my mobile camera and it will launch Internet Explorer and display our blog.  Very cool, and great for our marketing.

The other thing that’s very cool is that I don’t even have to print the Microsoft Tag on paper.  It will work on anything with reasonable resolution that works with a mobile camera.  The one I really like is scanning the image off of the computer monitor, but it can also scan off of the TV, movie screen, side of a bus, whatever.  This is great for getting long URLs in to the phone quickly.

Microsoft Tag Reader

To try it out, download the application from http://gettag.mobi/.  If you do this from your mobile device it will identify the correct download for your phone and provide it to you.  Alternately, you can download the application on your desktop and then transfer it to the phone yourself.

It’s also nice that Microsoft has realized that not everyone is running Windows Mobile and are providing download for a large number of phones.  The current list is: Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Java 2 Micro Edition, PalmOS, Symbian S60, Symbian S60 1st Edit, Symbian S60 2nd Edit, Symbian S60 3rd Edit, Windows Mobile.  A pretty good list.

Microsoft Tag Limitations

However the only way to “snap” a Microsoft Tag is to use the Microsoft Tag Reader.  Just looking at it I can already see potential applications that might take advantage of Microsoft Tags, but since there isn’t an SDK to work with them.  However, at NRF I spoke with some of the Microsoft Reps and they said it was under consideration.

The other limitation that I see is how the tags are processed.  What happens is Tag Reader “snaps” the tag and the data is then sent to the Microsoft Tag site which then decodes the tag and provides the information required.  This means a couple of things.  First of all, you must be connected to the Internet in order to “snap” a Microsoft Tag.  So disconnected use is out.

The other part of that restriction is that I can not dynamically generate tags on the fly.  For instance, I’d like to generate a unique tag that contains the user ID, and provide a custom tag to direct them to their web account.  However, since each tag must be created at the Microsoft Tag site this isn’t practical.

However it is very cool technology and only in Beta.  I’m looking forward to see how it will be used.

More Information:

Seven Springs Ski Rental System

Seven Springs

Seven Springs Ski Resort

Last Friday I went to Seven Springs for a little bit of skiing.  It has been almost three years since I’ve been able to ski, and I was really looking forward to it.  The conditions were ideal, thirty degrees with packed powdered and the skiing was great.  Although the lift lines were a bit long since they didn’t have the all of the slopes open.

However, the real disappointment was with their new Ski Rental System.  While I enjoy skiing, I have yet to make the investment in owning my own equipment, so I headed down to rent some skiis.  I got there and they had installed a whole new system for tracking the renters, processing the waivers, and tracking the equipment that was being handed out.

Normally, as a techie, I would be in favor of automating this type of process since this is the type of applications we develop.  But clearly whoever implemented this system completely ignored the human element of the system, as well as load testing the system for the requirements of a busy holiday weekend.

In the old system, the renters came in to a set of wide rows that had desks on one side with waiver forms.  The renter filled out the form, handed it to the cashier at the end of the row who created the rental ticket, lift ticket, kept a copy of the waiver, and processed the payment.  As the renter went through the system they got their equipment, and a person at the exit checked the slip, the renters ID, and the ID of the skis that were being rented.  When the equipment was returned it was checked back in to the system.

In the new system, there are now a set of flat panel displays on the counters to the left of the wide rows.  The renters now type there waiver information on these computers, and then go to the cashier at the end of the line to pay for their equipment and lift tickets.  Upon payment they receive a barcode to indicate what they have rented, as well as the lift ticket.  Next the go to get their equipment, where the scanned the barcode on the rental ticket, the boots, and the skiis.  Finally, at the exit they scan the ticket, skiis, and check the users ID.

Overall thhis is not a bad system, except for several problems with the actual implementation of the system.

  • The rows that were previously adequate for the paper forms, were now way too narrow for the people typing their information in to the kiosks, with whole families surrounding the terminal.  It was difficult to look down the row through all of the people to see which computers were available which left them under-utilized.  Then once you were able to find a computer and get through the form, there was no simple way to keep track of where people are in the line, so there is inevitable confusion and line-cutting.
  • Upon arriving at the cashier you order is not actually filled in.  The cashier searches for your last name in the system and then asks for the details of your purchase, perhaps combining multiple users in the system.
  • Next in the system were long lines at the ski equipment stand.  There are often delays here because the staff has to get the type of skiis you would like to rent, find appropriate skis, and configure them for the renter.  However, add to this the computers being extremely slow or down to process the requests, and you end up with people waiting twenty minutes, just to get their skis.  I overheard someone saying the delays were being caused by the anti-virus software.
  • Finally, there is another line to get out of the exit with your skis where they check the equipment in the computer once again.  Again slower than it needed to be.

So I ended up spending about thirty minutes to rent a pair of skis, boots, and poles instead of spending that time on the slopes.  Overall a very slow and frustrating start to an otherwise great day of skiing which makes me really question whether I should just stop at one of the other ski rental places outside of the resort.

Of course it’s easy to complain about these types of problems, and perhaps I was just lucky enough to experience the Seven Springs Ski Rental System at the the wrong time.  Regardless, I feel it is only appropriate to offer some suggestions on how they could improve this system.

  • First, I’d ditch the entich row system that they’ve implemented for the cashiers.  They already have an online system for purchasing lift tickets and equipment rentals so they should just make it available for people at the resort as well.  This would be a relatively simple process of laying out the entry to the ski rental to allow people to just walk up to a computer, lined up on a table or against a wall (like at the library), to do the entire transaction, including payment.  At completion they would receive a printed barcode that would be processed as if I had done it at home at the express line.This eliminates the confusion among the renters in the rows, reduces the work for the cashiers, and simplifies the entire process.
  • Next I would consider eliminating the computers where the skis are picked up.  They renters can still provide the printed barcode, but scanning the information is redundant with the rental exit process.  For those people who may have lost the barcode, provide a kiosk in the rental where they can reprint a ticket using a credit card, or other personal information.
  • At the exit point, I would do the final scan of all of the rental equipment, with the personal ID confirmation.  This would be the only point where it needs to be scanned in.
  • Seven Springs should also look at the barcodes that are being used on the equipment itself.  This equipment must endure the pounding of the snow, ice, rocks, and abuse the skiers dish out.  They need to be more durable than the ones I saw.  Particularly on the boots.
  • Load testing of the system to ensure that it can support peak season.  I don’t knonw if this occurred, but they had obvious performance issues.
  • Finally, perhaps they have already done this, but now that they’ve invested in this system and have barcoded their inventory they should have a handheld system to use for inventory, service tracking, lost equipment recovery, etc.

So at this point my recommendation for fellow skiers is to either use the online system to avoid the hassle with the cashier lines, or rent at one of the locations outside of the resort.

The Internet UPC Database

In a previous post I discussed how to get EAN and UPC barcode information from the Global Electronic Party Information Register (GEPIR).

This provides a great resource for the official registration for the barcode, but provides very little information about the actual item. Typically what you’d like to be able to do is scan a UPC or EAN, and then be able to provide information about the actual item.  Most important is a description of the item, size/weight, vendor, and other information.

The Internet UPC Database is a website that provides access to this type of data for almost 1,000,000 of items.  The interface is very simple, just type in your UPC or EAN number and basic information is displayed for the item.  In the case, that your items does not appear, you get an Item Not Found message and the opportunity to contribute your item to the database.

In my testing I was pleasantly surprised by the number of items in the database.  It had a lot of the items in my office, and even ones I was surprised it would know about, like this Office Depot composition book.  The data also seems to be well maintained and kept clean.

It is also possible to download the data.  However, the database is over 100MB and growing fast, so unless you have a significant application I’d just access the website directly.

Motorola Joins the Android Revolution

In a recent development, Motorola is making a major investment in supporting Android on mid-range Motorola phones.  In the high end handhelds they are still supporting Windows Mobile/CE, but in the mid-range they are adopting Android.

This will finally bring a real application environment to the average phone and people will no longer have to make the decision to invest hundreds of dollars in a Blackberry or Windows Mobile Phone.  Now they will have a mobile platform with a complete set of mobile capabilities.

The other advantage that Motorola has in this market is that their legacy in barcode scanning through their Symbol acquisition.  We can now realistically have barcode scanning in a mid-range handheld which will open a whole new world of applications such as ShopSavvy.  In the past Symbol has made attempts to bring scanning to the mobile phone, but with very limited success.

Of course the next question will be with the higher end terminals.  With all of the capabilities that are coming with the Android platform, what will happen to the high-end terminals.

Getting Barcode Information from GEPIR

GS1 Global GEPIR

GS1 Global GEPIR

There has always been a mystery about the information contained in the barcodes we see every day.  Actually there is a lot of information contained in the barcodes that is useful if we could only find the information. In the past this was difficult, but now the GS1 is providing public access to much of this information with the Global Electronic Party Information Register (GEPIR).

The GEPIR service contains basic information on over 1,000,000 companies, provided by the GS1 Member Organizations in over 100 countries.  This provides a  global database of company, location, and item information for GS1 barcodes around the world.

This free service provides a simple way to answer the following questions:

  • Who made the product with an EAN or UPC barcode?  Get company information from a GTIN (EAN/UPC)
  • Where was this carton shipped from?  Get carton and other shipping container information with the SSCC barcodes.
  • What is a company’s GLN number?  Look up a company by GLN number, or search by name

All this and more is provided by GEPIR. Related Links: