There are many different ways that today's hottest consumer technology can be used for business applications. While most organizations that use handheld barcode scanning technology still utilize ruggedized industrial-strength devices from companies like Motorola or Intermec, there is a growing trend toward using off-the-shelf consumer technology as a replacement for these often extremely expensive devices.
For example, in late 2009, Apple replaced their Windows Mobile-powered devices from Symbol/Motorola with iPod touch devices and a Linea Pro sleeve. The Linea Pro provides laser barcode scanning and magnetic stripe reading to allow Apple Store employees to simply scan a product and swipe a customer's credit card right from the iPod in their hands, allowing the customer to be right on their way in mere seconds. This article will examine many of the barcode scanning options for organizations looking to take advantage of applications like this.
The Linea Pro was popularized as the hardware used in Apple Retail stores to facilitate rapid customer checkout. The Linea Pro is a sleeve for an iPod touch that makes it a single unit, which is very convenient for many kinds of applications. In addition to providing a moderate level of durability and protection to the iPod touch, it also offers a hot-swappable battery that not only powers the scanner but also serves to keep the iPod fully charged. The Linea Pro has both a 1D barcode scanner and magnetic stripe reader, which makes it perfectly suited for applications like retail point-of-sale where the product can be scanned and the customer's credit card swiped. A Software Development Kit, or SDK, is provided by the manufacturer, Infinite Peripherals, to give app developers low-level access to scanners and readers to configure settings, trigger the barcode, and receive events for successful scans or swipes. As the first barcode scanner to receive certification from Apple to provide an SDK for low-level access, the Linea Pro is gathering quite a bit of momentum in internally developed applications similar to Apple's deployment. It is also being used in several commercial apps and point-of-sale solutions like LightSpeed Mobile (xsilva.com). The Linea Pro is the perfect device for many types of applications, but due to the fact that it only works with the iPod touch (2nd and 3rd gen) and not the iPhone or iPad, it has limited use.
Socket has been a leader in the barcode scanning accessory market for years, and the CHS-7X appears very polished. Compared to all of the other scanners, the CHS-7X feels the most solid, like it was manufactured with the highest quality plastics. In addition to providing the longest battery life of any scanner in this review, the CHS-7X also offers both a removable battery and electrical contacts for easy charging in a cradle. The CHS-7X has the most intuitive controls for both power and scanning, and it offers both beeps and vibration to signal a successful scan. Additionally, the laser in the CHS-7X appears to be brighter than any other reviewed unit and captures scans with more ease than the other units. Since the unit uses the Bluetooth HID profile to connect to the iOS device, it supports the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch through keyboard emulation. While flexible, the fact that Socket does not provide a low-level SDK for integration into applications is a significant limiting factor for using the CHS-7X in serious line-of-business applications. The lack of the SDK is about the only negative factor in an otherwise excellent scanner.
(a.k.a. Opticon OPN 2002)
The Opticon OPN 2002 (also known as the Scanfob 2002) is the smallest unit covered in the review. The size and form factor make the Scanfob a great unit for carrying around in a pocket for easy scanning. It also connects to any iOS 4.x device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) through the Bluetooth HID profile, which gives it keyboard emulation. As mentioned previously, this allows for flexibility as scanning can be used in almost any application. However, since it does not offer an SDK, it is more difficult to build rich custom line-of-business applications that use the scanner. The device does have its quirks. For instance, it does not have a power button to turn it off. It will turn itself off after a period of inactivity, but since it connects to the iOS device using the Bluetooth keyboard profile, the keyboard on the iOS device is not visible while the device is connected. The company did provide a setting that can be scanned that converts the small button (normally the button for pairing) into a keyboard toggle switch. Even with its idiosyncrasies, Scanfob is a great unit for many types of applications and comes in as the least expensive scanner hardware covered in this review.
While the KoamTac KDC300i is the most expensive scanner I reviewed, it also the most feature-rich and flexible. It is the only Bluetooth-based scanner that has been certified by Apple and is therefore able to offer a SDK. As the only Apple-certified scanner with an SDK that supports the iPhone and iPad, it is currently the only option for solutions that have that requirement. Beyond that, though, it has quite a few very unique features such as an LED display that can be programmed using the SDK. It also has programmable firmware that can run standalone applications that can be downloaded to a device in a batch process. This is a very appealing feature for many iPad-based cases, where the maneuverability of a user holding an iPad in one hand with the scanner in the other is questionable. This would allow users to scan a sequence of barcodes, either disconnected from the device for a batch downloaded, or connected to the iOS device via Bluetooth while using the screen on the KDC300i as the user interface for feedback and interaction. For rich line-of-business applications and deployments that require powerful features, the KoamTac is an excellent device, even if it is the most expensive.
Downloaded over 4 million times, the RedLaser iPhone app is one of the most popular paid apps in the App Store. It uses the camera in the iPhone to optically recognize the barcode on a product and automatically perform searches to allow easy comparison shopping. The RedLaser SDK gives other app developers the ability to use the same camera-based barcode scanning technology in their own apps, either custom in-house enterprise apps or apps distributed through the App Store. Users of applications that require rapid, sequential scanning will find that for intensive scanning, a laser-based scanner is much easier to use than the optical camera-based scanner provided by RedLaser. While a very powerful and simple way to add scanning capability to almost any app, RedLaser was acquired by eBay in 2010, so it's not entirely clear if eBay is dedicated to long-term support of the SDK for enterprise line-of-business use. RedLaser did not respond when asked if they were planning to add support for other barcode symbologies like Code39 and Code128. Those other symbologies would be required for many serious line-of-business applications outside of a purely retail or inventory context that uses only UPC/EAN. With the exception of these concerns, if your application only needs to support the occasional UPC, EAN, or QR Code scanning on the iPhone (and 4th gen iPod touch), then the RedLaser SDK is an excellent and inexpensive option.
No clear leader
Since many of these scanners have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, there is no clear "leader" in the market; there are appropriate applications for each and every one of the barcode scanners covered here. You should evaluate all the options weighing the pros and cons for your particular situation. You should also conduct a pilot with more than one option if possible.
While Microsoft has had a virtual monopoly on barcode scanning solutions with Windows CE and Windows Mobile for nearly a decade, Apple is now able to make a serious play in this space with this line-up of scanning accessories. Since this is an area that is going to only evolve further and attract additional competition, the coverage of this area of the market will likely be an on-going effort for future articles and reviews. In the meantime, if your organization already has or is considering deploying an iOS-based scanning solution, I would love to hear from you about your experiences with the different products on the market. As always, feel free to contact me at nathan [dot] clevengeriphonelife [dot] com.