Using an iPhone Barcode Scanning App in the Warehouse

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. 


  1. Crazy? Maybe not so much Steve. A few months back I read an article about a 3PL who was using, or developing, (wish I could locate the article) an iPhone app to track in-transit shipments and deliveries. Cool stuff, GPS, maps, waybills, delivery capture, via the ever present iPhone.

    Now the warehouse is a different place I’ll admit, and iPhones are not cheap. But, neither are the Motorola, etc, Wi-Fi scanners we all use.

    If there is a low cost wired (or blue tooth) scanner (wrist mount perhaps) that can interface with an iPhone strapped to your belt, then perhaps the issue becomes battery life. How long can a iPhone 3GS with Wi-Fi last in your warehouse.

    Also make for a pretty cool way of communicating. Most (or no) barcode scanners can’t do this. Maybe even an app for voice directed picking using iPhone’s hands free mode.


    Steve Murray
    Principal and Chief Researcher
    Supply Chain Visions

  2. Hi Steve,
    It may not be the best solution if you need to scan barcodes all day long, but for more “casual” uses, companies are considering issuing smartphones to some employees.

    They can be used as barcode scanners, access web apps on the intranet, and many other uses that traditional scanners cannot offer.

    My company developed the first barcode reader that actually worked on the iPhone 3G. You can try it for free in our pic2shop app. We get quite a few requests from companies who want to do just what you describe, and are looking to license our SDK.

  3. Steve,

    As an avid iPhone enthusiast, iPhone app developer, and supply chain professional, I am happy to see dialogue focused on this topic. I own and use RedLaser’s solution regularly on my 3Gs and also have experience with it on all other iPhone models. My experience on a 3GS is that it is almost as fast as most low cost laser scanners from an “acquisition” standpoint. It is perfectly usable to quickly scan UPC and EAN codes (more on this below). It is also a high performance tool where a developer can license the SDK at a reasonable cost – this allows developers to embedded scanning features into their own supply chain apps. However, based on my experience, older iPhone models could not be used in a “production” environment due to the “slowness” of acquisition.

    However, the biggest challenge with this solution in a “production” environment is that it currently only scans UPC and EAN codes, so if you have Code 39 or “128” symbologies printed on location or license plate labels in your facility, it would not support this scanning. However, I believe that this will be overcome by this vendor or another one in time. However, using this solution to scan “product codes” (UPC, EAN etc) is perfectly viable today in a shop floor operation.

    Another potential avenue is the “hardware” approach. There are many posts associated with Apple’s retail store iPhone/iPod Touch cradle which integrates a “real” laser scanner and magnetic card reader (for credit cards) so that they can use these devices on their own retail POS. One has to believe that this currently proprietary product might one day be a commercially available solution. It’s quite a nice solution.

    Ron Riggin
    Acuity Global LLC

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