I recently spoke to the folks at BabbleWare, a new software vendor with a low-cost warehouse management, manufacturing execution, and mobile field-based execution applications. BabbleWare mentioned that one of its WMS clients is actually experimenting with using the iPhone as their barcode scanning application.

Are they crazy?

Yes, you can buy a barcoding application at Apple’s App Store, and it is cheap—only $1.99 for the RedLaser application. The various barcode apps for sale were designed for the consumer market. The idea is for a user to walk into a store and take a picture of a product barcode that interests them. The app then identifies the scanned item and presents the user with Google Product Search and Amazon shopping results for that item. The IT folks at this sixteen-person warehouse are reconfiguring the app so that it enters the barcode number into the BabbleWare application. 

Online reviews of barcode scanner apps suggest that the initial offerings were highly unreliable (see YouTube video of a user repeatedly trying to get an application to work). Poor camera focus on the original iPhone was one of the problems with previous barcode scanner apps. But the new and improved camera in the iPhone 3GS is said to have greatly improved the situation. Further, the RedLaser barcode scanner is made by Occipital, the company that developed ClearCam, the application responsible for greatly enhancing the iPhone’s camera.

However, while the camera is greatly improved, it is not industrial strength yet, according to one of my logistics sources. Here are some additional reasons why I think BabbleWare’s client is crazy:

  1. There are bloggers who say this solution is reliable, others who say it is totally unreliable. And users have been reporting problems in low-light conditions. Simply put, an industrial-strength barcode scanner needs to be nearly flawless.
  2. Reads take too long. Bloggers say you have to carefully line the camera up to the barcode. If you watch the online videos of folks using the app, it seems to take one to two seconds to get the scan recognized. This should really be a sub-second process.
  3. It is easy to drop things in a warehouse. If you drop an iPhone on a concrete floor it will break.  And iPhones aren’t cheap to replace ($500 at consumer prices). An industrial strength scanner needs to survive a 4-ft drop test onto a concrete floor without breaking.
  4. Do you really want your workers off in the stacks surfing the Web or calling their friends?

An iPhone barcode scanner for mobile asset management might make sense. Those folks need the ability to call in and use the Internet to download maps and navigate to the right location. Further, most people expect Apple to introduce its much-anticipated “tablet” computer this Wednesday, rumored to be called the “iSlate.” Such a device secured to a forklift might make sense.  

But using an iPhone for barcode scanning in a warehouse? That strikes me as crazy.

What do you think? Post a comment and share your viewpoint.