Mobile barcodes and smarter shopping
Could the barcode, a technology invented 60 years ago, be the next big thing in making mobile phones a powerful shopping tool? Tesco certainly thinks so. Today it's launching what it claims is the first UK grocery app to include a barcode scanner.
Now, like many people, I've used apps on both the iPhone and Android phones that scan barcodes and then give you a readout of comparative prices for various products. They are great fun to show off to friends but after a while it's difficult to work out when you would use them.
But Tesco thinks it's found a compelling use. The company paints a picture of you the customer finding that you've used the last tin of tomatoes, then scanning it with your phone so that it goes into the tesco.com online shopping basket for your next home delivery. Or you might be out at a friend's for dinner, compliment them on their delicious Tesco Finest cheesecake, and scan that for your next online shop.
Hmmm, I'm not quite convinced that pulling out your phone and finding out just how cheap your host's dessert was will endear you to them, but maybe it will become quite the thing at fashionable dinner parties.
Right now the app is only available on the iPhone - Tesco says 10% of online grocery customers have the Apple phone so that was the natural place to start - but it should be coming to Nokia and Windows phones with cameras at some stage.
What would make it really useful though is if you could use your phone in a store to scan and then pay for goods without having to queue up.
That kind of application is starting to appear. In the United States Starbucks is trying out a system which allows iPhone and Blackberry users to pay for their coffees with a barcode. And, in the UK, I recently checked in for a flight with a barcode which had been e-mailed to my phone, though I'm not entirely clear that this was more convenient than a paper ticket.
The idea that your phone can become an all-purpose digital wallet and identity device has been around for more than a decade, and it's taking a lot longer than many expected to become a reality. Now that Britain's most powerful retailer is putting its weight behind the idea, perhaps its time really has come.Update 1225: To clarify, Tesco have been in touch to stress this is the first grocery app with a barcode scanner on the iPhone.
As others have pointed out, there is already an Ocado Android app which features a barcode scanner.
Ocado tells me that the app has been very popular - after starting with an iPhone app, it decided to offer extra innovations on its Android app, including the barcode scanner and voice search. They won't confirm this, but hinted that barcode scanning might soon come to their iPhone app too.
I've asked Tesco when it plans to bring its barcode scanner to Android phones, but the retailer hasn't been able to give a date.
So yes, Android is proving a focus for smartphone innovation.