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IBM to bring bar codes up to code

Services offer help to retailers that aren't ready for Jan. 1 revamp of venerable product IDs.

Bar code technology is about to get a face-lift, and IBM aims to be the surgeon of choice.

IBM on Monday announced services to help retailers and makers of packaged goods prepare for new bar code standards set to take effect at the start of next year. The Uniform Code Council, the group behind the Universal Product Code information found on everything from window cleaner to Windows software packages, has declared that by Jan. 1, all U.S. and Canadian companies must be able to scan and process product symbols used elsewhere in the world--at the point of sale.

The council announced its "2005 Sunrise" program in 1997, but many companies are not yet prepared for the change, said Ray Tromba, director of retail application management systems for IBM Global Services.

"Changes in the checkout registers, including IBM's point-of-sale systems, have been introduced over the past eight years," Tromba said in a statement. "But time is running out, and most companies have been slow to change their core business applications."

IBM isn't the only technology services firm hoping to help companies get their bar code systems up to snuff. Electronic Data Systems and Cognizant Technology Solutions have also announced efforts focused on 2005 Sunrise.

For the past 30 years, U.S. products have been labeled with 12-digit UPC symbols. But outside the United States and Canada, retail products are marked with EAN-8 and EAN-13 symbols, using the European Article Numbering system. To sell those products in the United States and Canada, manufacturers have to relabel them with a 12-digit UPC symbol, adding expense and delays, according to the Uniform Code Council.

After Jan. 1, Uniform Code Council "company prefixes" will no longer be issued to new companies based outside of the United States and Canada. "Therefore, these new companies will be marking their products with EAN-8 or EAN-13 symbols," according to the council. This means that U.S. retailers need their computers to be able to recognize the EAN tags.

As an advancement of traditional bar code systems, companies are also developing radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology. RFID systems combine chips that carry descriptive information with radio frequency technology to track inventory.

Because numbers in the 12-digit bar code conveyed information about product maker and the individual items, retailers built their core business systems--including those managing price and inventory--on the familiar UPC code over the past three decades, IBM said.

Big Blue said its Legacy Transformation Services for Retailers use consulting methods and IBM applications to help retailers update and modernize aging computer software, including reworking them for Web-based use.

This is not IBM's first experience with the bar code, the company noted. Two IBM employees played key roles in the development of the UPC code, the company said. In 1952, Joe Woodland was awarded a patent as co-inventor of the early concept, and in 1971, George Laurer headed up IBM's development of the concept for the 12-digit UPC, IBM said.