This Visit Brought To You By
Scan-Tech 99 was held at the Rosemont Convention Center near O’Hare International Airport October 5-7. This was my 16th Scan-Tech. It felt strange not having two auto ID trade shows. Last year the spring show, ID Expo was ended by Advanstar. All efforts were put into making Scan-Tech 99 the biggest show yet. By the difficulty I had getting around the show floor, I’m sure attendance records were broken.
Several years ago I predicted that future new automatic identification products would be the result of common modules. I suggested that this modular approach would result in clusters of similarly performing products. When a few vendors’ produces scan engines, wireless LAN PC cards, and microcomputer boards, one can expect the same breakthrough products from multiple vendors. This year my prediction was quite evident. Because this year’s innovative products are clustered in several product groups, I’m departing from my Top Ten picks. However, there was a product and a service that did stand out.
Number One - A Talking Printer
The Best New Product goes to the XiIII industrial label printers from Zebra Technologies. These are the first bar code printers to combine the power of wireless messaging and the Internet with a bar code printer. In fact, there is a web server inside these printers.
Zebra's ZebraNet™ Alert system uses the power of the ZebraNet PrintServer II to keep network administrators in constant contact with networked XiIII printers from anywhere in the world. Should a printer run out of media or ribbon, the printer can instantly notify the network administrator by issuing a detailed error message through e-mail or to a wireless mobile device, pager, text-messaging-capable cellular phone or Zebra's ZebraNet Alert Printer Management Utility for Windows™ 95/98/NT.
The advanced architecture of the XiIII includes an embedded Web server, enabling on-site or remote printer configuration using a common Web browser such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Using the ZebraNet WebView utility, a system administrator can log on to any printer's password-protected Web page via its IP address, and set up or adjust its characteristics such as burn temperature, printing resolution, print speed, etc., using pull-down menus of that printer's possible settings.
Because this is a Web-based solution, system administrators or system integrators can set up and manage multi-site or multi-national printing operations from one centralized location. Even where a fixed TCP/IP connection is not available, users can access and modify printer features through common dial-up SLIP or PPP connections.
This printer is a trendsetter. Other companies like Printronix have shown TCP/IP printers that could signal ribbon out or label out conditions, However, the Web-enabled printers from Zebra can allow remote configuration as well as extensive monitoring of printer conditions. Next year you will see this level of web-enablement in many other automatic identification products.
Number Two - The End to Trade Magazines and Shows
The best new service of Scan-Tech 99 is a threat to trade magazines like Automatic ID News and trade shows like Scan-Tech. It’s Compsee’s Electronic Response & Information Center - ERIC for short.
This dynamic web portal integrates voice, video and data to create a automatic data collection community and virtual company that will provide a wealth of information about automatic data collection technologies. Through ERIC, a customer can tour successful installations via streaming video or text, learn about products and services provided by Compsee and read white papers about automatic identification issues. The site also has an extensive collection of demonstration software that can be downloaded.
Future additions will include on-line real-time seminars with experts and a complete collection of manuals for the products Compsee sells.
The site makes use of Shockwave, a multimedia plug-in (additional program) for Netscape and Internet Explorer. The site also uses Realplayer G2 for video.
While the use of video and Shockwave presentation does require a fast Internet connection, most IT professionals have access to such Internet connections. IT professionals are turning first to the Internet for information about automatic data collection information and that’s what makes ERIC so interesting. I’ve often told people that the Internet makes everyone their own NBC. It gives every company the ability to publish, broadcast, and sell globally. ERIC is the first of what I expect will be a flood of similar sites that will serves as the principle advertising and selling channel for automatic identification. Take a look.
Other Notable Products
There were several other products that caught my eye at the show.
Intermec showed the Norand 6642 Windows 98 Tablet computer. The unit is only 2.2 pounds, and 3/4" thick and uses a 266MHz Celeron processor. It is near-notebook in its features. It has a PC Card slot that can be used with wireless LAN PC cards, a USB port and IrDA port. The screen is touch sensitive and the unit has numeric and navigation keys. The company claims a December 1 delivery date. If they meet the date, it will make the product first of its kind, even in general computer market. It could make Intermec a horizontal market player in web tablets.
Casio introduced the Cassiopeia Fiva Windows 98 tablet computer. This unit weighs 1.85 pounds and is 1.12 inches thick. The processor is a National Semiconductor Geode 200 MHz and comes with near-notebook features too.
WhereNet (formally WiData) showed their Firefly Real-Time Locating System in an innovative way. They had members of the booth staff carry Firefly tags around the exhibit floor -- I mean the entire exhibit floor. The entire exhibit hall was covered by a series of Firefly active antennas hung from the hall’s ceiling. A show floor map on a computer display showed exactly where each roaming staff member was and the "product" they were carrying.
Another interesting product was the USBLink from Marson Technology, Taiwan. This device allows any PS/2 or RS232 device to connect to a USB port. It allows any bar code wedge reader to be turned into a USB reader.
As I said earlier, Scan-Tech was a show with clusters of trend-setting products. Here is my list of the top trends of Scan-Tech 99.
Hand Held Imagers
The first trend was imagers. An image uses a small video camera to capture an image of a barcode. The image is then decoded using a powerful processor and special algorithms. Imagers have several advantages over laser scanners. They can read both 1D and 2D barcodes. They can also perform optical character recognition (OCR) with the right software and can capture pictures and signatures. Because the processing for imagers needed to be more powerful than laser scanners, imagers were always more expensive. That has begun to change at this year’s Scan-Tech. Cost has dropped to about the same as a low end laser scanner. There is one shortcoming of imagers. They still cannot scan at long distances as laser scanners can.
PSC Inc. introduced the Imager 8000. It has a high-speed processor that renders it two to five times faster than competitive products. It can decode traditional 1-Dimensional (linear) bar codes, "stacked" 2-Dimensional PDF417 symbols, "matrix" 2-Dimensional symbols including MaxiCode, DataMatrix and QR and postal codes. The imaging features enable users to take "digital snapshots" of signatures, labels or objects that are then processed and transmitted to a host system. The unit uses a 166 MHz Intel® StrongARM™ processor which makes the decode very snappy.
Metanetics introduces their IR-M megapixel rugged hand held imager. The imager has a full 1.3 million pixels. It’s also available with a color CCD, but the resolution was quite bad in the color version. The black and white version has excellent resolution and could scan bar code down to 5 mil x-dimension. The IR-88 was also introduced with a price under $900. This is the first imager that has a price similar to low priced lasers. Metanetics was also showing an extremely small imager engine designed to fit the same space as popular laser scanning engines
HandHeld Products and Tohken Co. Ltd. showed hand held imager too.
USB (Universal Serial Bus) is a technology that really hit its stride about 18 months ago. It is a true plug-n-play peripheral interface for computers. It’s faster than parallel or RS-232 serial and it allows Windows 98 to automatically detect the presents of all types of USB devices and sets up the necessary drivers. It is rapidly becoming the dominant way to connect peripherals to computers. The advantage for automatic identification is with 2D imagers. Because of its high speed, it allows the raw image to be passed to the host computer for decoding. It allows the imager to be lighter and cheaper.
This year at Scan-Tech several companies showed 2D barcode scanners that connect to computers through USB.
Metanetics as I mentioned earlier, introduces their IR-M megapixel rugged hand held imager. This unit was shown with a USB connection that allowed the imager to download the captured image at a rate of 1 megabits-per-second. The processor for decoding still was inside the imager.
PSC Inc. showed a version of the Imager 8000 reader with a Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface. PSC claimed that it was the first 2D reader to use the USB interface. The unit was the first to decode at the host computer, not in the imager. It is designed for applications in which rapid image transfer is of critical importance (<400 milliseconds compared with tens of seconds with RS-232 interface).
Densei showed the BCH5584 with USB. The unit uses an on-board processor to decode the image. The decoded data is passed to the computer through the USB port and the data goes into the computer as if it were typed on a keyboard.
Windows CE Hand Held Computers
This year more handheld portables began to use Windows CE and many began to use Intel’s StrongARM processor. The advantage of CE over a hand held OS like the Palm OS is that there are many more developers who know CE. That means more potential applications from VARs and software houses.
Symbol introduced three CE portables, the PPT2700, PDT 7200 and PDT 7500. The PPT 2700 is a pocket computer weighting 12 ounces and has integrated scanning. The PDT 720 has a pistol grip and has voice paging using Symbols Spectrum24 wireless system. The PDT 7500 is designed to handle "extreme weather" at IP64 specification.
Hand Held Products showed their Dolphin 7400 Windows CE. This CE machine uses the StrongARM processor and has a 640-480 display. It can be fitted with an integrated laser scanner or imager. The unit is sealed to IP65 rating.
Telxon also showed several Windows CE portable with color display.
The End Of The Channel?
Symbol announced the launch of a web store for selling their products, and obtains real-time status of orders and shipping. One has to wonder what role distributors will play in the future. After all, direct marketing of computer products through Internet is a proven business model. With Symbol’s announcement, it’s clear that distributors need to move towards value added applications and integrated solutions. See the announcement.
Web Based Applications
An increasing number of companies showed software with web browser interfaces driven by Java. The advantage of this approach is it makes the software cross-platform compatible. It also makes the software easier to integrate with a variety of database engines and it is easier to design user interfaces. The biggest advantage is its ability to work globally over the Internet.
Mont, Renaissance Software, and Tecsys showed Java-based distribution and warehouse management system. Unibar showed a Java based Label Printing. DataMAX Software Group’s RFGen wireless system is a Java-based system for designing and managing wireless data collection systems.
Trends to Watch Next Year
This year many companies introduced USB imagers. Next year look for printers and many more automatic data collection products to provide this interface.
In October 1999 the first draft of the new USB-2 standard was issued. This new version of USB will have a speed of 40 Mbps and will be backward compatible. It will become very significant for both imagers and wireless LAN devices. USB-2 will take the wind out of Firewire (IEEE 1394) sails, at least in the auto ID area. While Firewire is ten times faster than USB-2, it’s more expensive to add to devices and it is not yet supported in the Intel chipset.
Look for more Internet-enabled products like Zebra’s. Dallas Semiconductor offers TINI, a tiny printed circuit board with a custom chipset that executes Java™ and speaks TCP/IP. The board is only 1.25 x 4.05-inch form factor and less than 1 cubic inch displacement. It will enable many more products to have web servers built into them.
Look for something called BlueTooth to begin to appear in products too. Bluetooth is a short-range, cable replacement, radio technology championed by Ericsson, Nokia, IBM, Intel, and Toshiba. The BlueTooth 1.0 Specification was released in July 1999. This wireless technology has a range of between 10 cm to 100 m and supports up to 8 devices in a piconet. Speed is only 1 Mbps using the 2.45 GHz band. It’s original intended use was to provide a wireless "sync" for cell phone PDA’s and computers, but it has potential for cordless bar code readers and wireless LAN connections.