A recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek (Dec. 24, 2012) noted the passing of N. Joseph Woodland. You don’t know him, but you know his invention: the bar code. Woodland and fellow student Bernard Silver at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia dropped out of school to focus on their invention. The idea came to Woodland in 1948 when he was sitting on a beach, drawing in the sand and he thought up the idea for a series of lines of different widths that functioned sort of like a Morse Code, in other words, a bar code.
Today, Woodland’s invention is found on nearly everything you buy. But in fact, the bar code started as one technology among many, and the article goes on to point out that it takes three characteristics to turn a budding technology into a standard of worldwide dominance. Even today, new tech ideas still seem to require the same three fundamental criteria in order to achieve global success, or dominance. And these would be…
- “Simplicity and reliability that overcomes habit.” Basically, it has to work. Bar codes are very reliable and over time, a lot of work went into that. It wasn’t until roughly the early 80s that bar codes caught on to the point where they became today’s ubiquitous identifier.
- “A governing body has to establish standards.” A consortium of retailers and manufacturers came together to chose the UPC (Universal Product Code), developed by IBM, as the standard. It helped that Woodland worked there and helped develop that standard.
- “An extravagant, surprising, and often expensive effort to seed the market.” For UPCs, the seeding of the market was provided by the rise of Wal-Mart Stores, which used the codes in its now famous distribution system. Credit cards have a similar history, owing to something called the Fresno Drop of 1958. At that time, Bank of America realized the only way people would start to use cards more and cash less was if everybody they knew did it as well. So, they sent 60,000 credit cards to every home in Fresno, CA. It worked, and today, credit cards are as ubiquitous as, well… bar codes.
The BusinessWeek article closes by pointing out how the new technology called “Square” has thus far managed two criteria. Its little square credit card device plugs into an iPhone or iPad to allow customers to swipe credit cards. It’s simple and it works (point 1). It made a big splash in the market when Starbucks began using it in 7,000 stores (point 3). But it lacks a governing body or strong consortium – so far. There are a variety of competing alliances, preventing Square from duplicating Woodland’s success. For Square, it would appear world domination is just one giant step away.