Apple Gets Barcode-Reading Patent - Let's Your Fingers Do the Shopping

By Peter Bernstein August 08, 2012

Does the number 8,239,276 ring a bell? If you said it is your winning number from one of the scam lotteries that litter you junk mail inbox every day, you would be wrong. However, if you said it was the number associated with Apple’s latest patent to be granted, congratulations. You are a winner! Looks like Apple may have a winner on its hands as well.

A complex shopping app 

So, at some time in the not-too-distant future hear is that they and we have won. The patent pertains to a rather complex, although when commercialized you can be sure Apple makes it easy to use, shopping application. Based on the exploitation of the Near-Field Communcations (NFC) spec for mobile wallets and the ability for handheld devices to do bar-code reading, this appears to be the foundation for using your iPhone or iPad as part of Apple’s forthcoming PassBook capability or a some other so-called “eWallet” solution.The patent goes under the seemingly innocuous title, "On-the-go Shopping List." It is hardly every day. The summary actually highlights what is afoot here: “An NFC-capable barcode-reading shopping assistant.”

If you are like me it is likely you already have a app on your Apple or Android device that enables you to read QR bar codes and possibly UPC ones as well. They let you get product information. What they do not do is link your scan to transactional history and credit card information. That is what 8,239,276 will enable you to do.   The patent description is of an involved app offering lowest price indicators as well as an option to create shopping lists and read or write product reviews when a barcode is scanned. The summary, is a bit legalistic but gives a reasonable characterization of all of the capabilities that have now been granted:

Embodiments of the system allow a consumer to create an electronic shopping list by scanning products. In some embodiments, shopping-related information may be obtained for items in the shopping list, such as pricing information, product quality, consumer ratings, and other information that may help a consumer to make an informed purchasing decision. Other embodiments allow a consumer to obtain and compare retail prices offered by several retailers for products in the shopping list. Still other embodiments provide a store-wide network that allows a shopper to scan items in the store, add the scanned items to a shopping list, and then check-out electronically.

And, the capabilities can be integrated with Maps (no wonder Apple has made a move to displace Google’s supremacy in the space) so that users in the future will be able to find store locations and get in-store directions. That’s a whole lot of functionality literally in the palm of your hand.

The reason this is very patent worthy and is obviously why Apple was eager to get the government’s blessing, the market for mobile payments from personal devices finally appears to be at hand. The intellectual property contains a couple of nice touches that rise to the level of needing protection. This includes for starters how the scanning itself is done which includes: object recognition or code recognition through the device's camera, NFC or a dedicated barcode scanner.

For those so inclined read deeper in the property description. This goes beyond the usual capabilities of iOS barcode scanner apps to encompass implementation a store-wide network can be used for electronic check-out. It also covers an NFC device that can retrieve product data and interaction with a cash register, meaning there are lots of deployment options/opportunities.

As commenters have noted, NFC capabilities as described are limited to "coupons" redemption, but the architecture envision enabling direct payments from a stored credit card.

What may be next

Apple has made no secret that it has google eyes on the eWallet marketplace. In fact, during recent calls with analysts, CEO Tim Cook has not been shy in stating that the PassBook capability to be launched with the introduction of iOS 6 in the Fall is a “very key feature.” In fact, you might wish to check out the complete list of what is coming in iOS 6 so you can plan accordingly.     

Before getting too excited there are a couple of caution flags that need to be mentioned. First, Apple has not marketed a device with an included NFC chip. Second, PassBook as it is described so far while serving as a personal information vault, currently is not transactional (despite the name which as we all know is not an coincidence), i.e., it does not link directly to credit card information. Hence, the patent has not been labeled and eWallet solution although it is clearly a foundational piece of such a solution whether it is based around PassBook or something else. 

The other day I wrote an article questioning Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s now infamous statement that we are in for a cloud-based version of Armageddon as we purportedly will cede control of our personal information by moving out of our devices and into the cloud.   Maybe the prospects of all that information generated by what this patent likely holds (pardon the pun) in store, is what has the Woz on edge. 

As I stated then, I think he needs to relax. The eWallet era is coming, and despite many fits and false starts, it is clearly at the gates. It should be no surprise to anyone that Apple has not lost sight of the prize and is using its vast resources to stake out the high ground in what is sure to be a hotly contested battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers and those who serve them. 

Edited by Braden Becker
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