Starting this week, The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., is delivering papers that have tiny bar codes on articles, allowing readers to use a pen-like wand to scan and pull up related information on the Web.
The bar codes--small enough to be covered by a dime--hold Web site addresses, or URLs, that can be read by scanners connected to the computer through a port on the keyboard.
"A tiny video camera inside the scanner shoots a picture (of the URL) when it gets into focus and fires up the browser for you," said Tom Pickens, chairman of South Carolina-based GoCode, a privately held company that has been developing the technology during the past three and a half years.
Such scanners are like a remote control to the Internet, potentially linking content printed in newspapers, magazines, fliers and catalogs instantly to the Web.
For example, a woman reading about a new cancer drug in the paper can scan the bar code within the article and have direct access to related Web pages instead of having to search for the information.
"All newspapers are trying to figure out how to link the printed word to the Internet, and we think this could be the bridge that'll do it," said Larry Tarleton, assistant publisher of The Post and Courier.
One e-commerce company, PlanetRx, is using scanning technology to encourage shopping on the fly. The online drugstore launched ScanCart in March so that consumers could scan products anywhere, anytime--and, after uploading the items at PlanetRx, check out with ease. The first known site to do this, PlanetRx sells its egg-shaped scanning device for $159.
GoCode, which licensed its technology to The Post and Courier, is giving away its scanners to people who both read the newspaper and are active users of the Internet. About 100 people in the Charleston area are testing the scanners through The Post and Courier, and Pickens said his company will give away the device to about 3,000 readers in the next couple of months.
Pickens hopes the technology will catch on with newspapers and magazines across the country. He said he has already talked with major publishers including News Corp., Hearst Publications and The New York Times Co.
Although The Post and Courier is using the scanning technology to link to noncommercial sites, such as additional news and sports information, the next step would be to embed bar codes in advertising, including classifieds.
Companies could link ads to an exact product on their Web site without forcing the reader to type a URL 100 characters long or to sift through several pages to find what they're looking for. In classifieds, advertisers could give readers a direct link to images of the home or car they're selling without paying for more space in the paper.
Yesterday The Post and Courier embedded bar codes for weather information and the newspaper's Web site, Charleston.net, on its front page. Today the paper will weave in links to sports- and stock-related sites for its sports and business sections, and it will continue to add more codes in each section every day, Pickens said.
For a small-circulation paper, reaching 110,000 readers daily, The Post and Courier acknowledges it is taking an uncharacteristically progressive step toward the digital age.
"Everyone is looking to see where the Net is going, and newspapers, as the main provider of information in the country, need to be involved in the development of the Internet. We as an industry have to be there," Pickens said.
GoCode, founded in 1997, is also building scanning technology that works through cell phones and personal digital assistants, which it plans to launch by the end of this year. And the GoCode Reader lets consumers purchase products online directly from the newspaper without having to type or call a toll-free number.
The Post and Courier, founded as The Charleston Courier in 1803, is an investor in GoCode; other investors include the Evening Post Corp. and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain.