According to Moore’s Law, computing technology doubles in performance just about every two years (to put it in layman’s terms). Considering most of us walk around with phones in our pockets vastly more advanced than the computers that launched the first space shuttles, it seems like Moore was on the right track. Today, the prevalence of computer technology in our daily lives has made us a more efficient society and only figures to increase that efficiency in the foreseeable future.

The Barcode

One piece of technology that has not changed over the past twenty or so years is the UPC (universal product code, or “barcode” colloquially). As you know, barcodes are used on almost every product you purchase. Invented to aid the tracking of inventory and expedite the checkout process in grocery stores, this system proved remarkably effective and rapidly rose in popularity with other retail outlets. Today, almost any store you visit will employ the use of barcodes.

Unless those stores have already moved on to more advanced inventory-tracking technology. While UPC technology has had a remarkable, decades-long run as the preferred inventory tracking method, there exists a school of thought that foresees RFID (radio frequency identification) tags eventually replacing barcodes altogether.

RFID Chips

RFID tags, or “smart labels”, were first embedded in livestock to aid farmers in tracking their cattle. While this practice is still in place today, any animal lover may now embed RFID tags in their pets, which can then be scanned at animal shelters to determine if a lost animal has an owner. Similar methods have been used recently in tagging Alzheimer’s patients and creating “e-passports”, although concerns over data privacy and other, more eerie “Big Brother” activity figure to suppress public enthusiasm over human-embedded chips for some time.

Creepy science fiction scenarios aside, RFID tags can communicate with computer systems in ways far more advanced, and useful, than barcodes can.

RFID chips are currently being used by businesses to track how long their products last on the shelves and which products are being purchased at the same time as one another. This information allows savvy analysts to optimize their marketing and sales strategies, easily identifying a product’s demand and its primary consumer demographic. Transportation systems use RFID chips to automate the paying of tolls and fares, allowing more passengers to travel, thus increasing revenue.

Automation via RFID is rising quickly, and could soon eliminate the long checkout lines at retail stores entirely, as RFID chips could theoretically communicate directly with a consumer’s bank account, deducting the exact price of the products that person left the store carrying.

Will RFIDs Replace Barcodes?

Realistically, RFID tags will not be able to completely take over the market for some time. Barcodes are cheap and reliable, which has led to the prevalence that now serves as a further barrier to any potential replacement. However, UPC technology has its limits, especially in our increasingly automated consumer world. For one, barcodes are “read-only”, meaning whatever data the code conveys, that is the only data it will ever convey. Conversely, RFID tags are “read- and write-capable”. This means the data stored in an RFID chip can be can be updated, changed, locked, or deleted entirely. And as mentioned earlier, RFID chips can communicate to a network, reducing the need for each and every item to be individually scanned during checkout.

Despite all of the potential, there are some disadvantages to RFID use. Because these so-called “smart labels” are used to communicate to computer systems, they require the use of power. The least expensive RFID tags, called “passive” RFID tags, rely entirely on the power of the device responsible for reading the data. These tags are cheap and somewhat common today, but are still more expensive than UPCs.

RFID manufacturers are working hard to reduce the costs of their products, because the potential to completely replace barcodes is there. As for the elimination of long checkout lines, together we wait.

This article was written by Phillip Reeves for RedBeam, Inc. a leading provider of complete barcode-based software solutions. Their inventory control software is intuitive, affordable and provides a complete solution for your inventory management needs.