P&G Backs Mobile Barcode Scan Approach, But Few Retailers Can Afford To Wait

As the quantity of mobile POS interactions continues to soar—whether they're payments, coupons, CRM or something else—it's a rare retailer who has avoided the maddening inability of laser scanners to reliably grab data off a smartphone. Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has moved into this argument, pushing a mobile scan approach based on using functionality that could be placed within handset hardware or mobile operating systems.

The good news is that this approach, in theory, will be free to retailers, because it will not necessitate any store IT changes at all. The problem—and it's a deal-killer—is timing. Given the logistics involved, getting enough phones and mobile OSs using this approach into the hands of enough consumers to be meaningful is likely to take years. That's an unacceptable delay for most retailers, who would rather take a short-term cost hit and upgrade their laser scanners. With the mobile onslaught, quick is almost certainly going to trump free.

In almost any other retail situation, strong support from the $83 billion P&G would be huge. In this instance, though, P&G has little influence where it matters: getting these upgraded devices and mobile OSs out to the market.

That will be dictated by how quickly handset vendors and mobile OS companies adopt these changes, how quickly those compliant devices are offered for sale and—this is the most crucial part—how quickly consumers buy those devices. Even if phone and mobile OS players move extremely quickly to roll out new versions, consumers replace their phones on their own timetables.

There's also the chicken-and-egg factor: If enough retailers start upgrading their scanners to be immediately more mobile-friendly, it will make handset manufacturers feel less of a need to accelerate.

The new approach is being pushed by a San Francisco-based vendor called Mobeam, and the company said its approach works by leveraging a light source within the phone manipulated (either by the phone's firmware or by the mobile OS) into a light beam that today's older scanners will recognize.

What type of light sources within the phone?What type of light sources within the phone?

A Mobeam document said the mobile "light sources can be any LED already used on phones, such as a message waiting indicator, a charge indicator or even the infrared LED used in proximity sensors to turn off your screen when it is close to your face. A mobeamed barcode fools the scanner into thinking that it has seen data reflected off of a printed barcode."

Mobeam, like many vendors, overstates its case, falsely saying that mobile devices cannot be read by retailers today. That's clearly not true, but it is true that most of the older scanners have difficulty consistently reading from many of today's phones.

Mobeam stresses the extreme value to retailers of making a far higher percentage—if not the totality—of mobile phones readable by its systems today, which is quite true. But the company underestimates—at least publicly—how quickly that can happen. And by "happen," we're talking about getting these systems into the hands of so many consumers (70 percent? 80 percent?) that retailers are confident they don't need to do scanner upgrades for mobile.

The upgrade scenario is to go to a 2D optical scanner. The pros and cons of this approach go beyond speed versus cost. It is true that Mobeam's approach should work on all phones and all scanners. But for any form to be compliant, it must use upgraded hardware and/or software. That gets back to the installed base issue previously mentioned.

Not only would an upgrade be faster, but it would also likely work better for more phones—especially older phones with weaker resolutions.

In the meantime, retailers are left to get creative about ways to get around today's limitations. For example, about a year ago, a Target IT exec described a florescent light problem. Because fluorescents were obscuring displayed barcodes, associates were instructed to hold the phone above the scanner (flatbed or handheld wand) so the phone and the hand holding the phone block out much of that fluorescent light.

Yankee Group Senior Analyst Nick Holland applauded Mobeam's approach, but wondered if it could possibly grow fast enough quickly enough to make a difference. "I think they're onto something, but they may have some difficulties with the huge range of handsets on the market," he said. "Very cool nonetheless and requires zero POS upgrade."

Holland, as usual, is quite correct. But clever or not, the speed of mobile adoption might rob from retailers the luxury of being able to wait. To support a huge percentage of phones right away may just force a series of painful upgrades.