QR codes are those strange square barcodes that you now see on everything from billboards to business cards. If you have a smartphone, you can scan them and be taken to a website or some other information about a product or service. These clever codes can hold a lot more data than the familiar UPC barcode you see on the back of a cereal box, but they weren’t the first to take this approach to storing lots of machine-readable information on a printed page.
The first book I wrote was about the original HP LaserJet. In the book, I listed some simple BASIC programs that demonstrated some of the features of the new LaserJet PCL (Printer Control Language) that made the Epson Escape code commands look like child’s play. It was not uncommon for a PCL command to be 10 or 15 characters long, compared with the two or three used by the standard Epson codes.
I was then faced with the question of how the reader was going to get these programs into his or her computer to try them out on a LaserJet. Today, it would be a simple task to just put them up on a website and let them download the files. That was not a practical option at the time, however, and the amount of code was so small that it wasn’t worth the cost of including a floppy disk with the book.
[Credit: Alfred Poor]
So I turned to a new product, the Cauzin Softstrip System. This included a scanner that consumers could get to read data from a printed page. It was created in response to the program code that was printed in many popular computer magazines of the day, such as “Creative Computing.” Subscribers would spend hours typing in these program listings, and then spend more hours troubleshooting and trying to find out where they had made transcription errors.
Cauzin was founded by Jack Goldman, who earlier led in the creation of Xerox PARC as its Head of Research. Cauzin’s system could store up to 5,500 characters (yes, a whopping 5.5K of data) in a nine-inch strip. And if your program was longer than that, you could print additional strips next to the first one, and they could be read in sequence and automatically concatenated.
In addition to the higher data density than traditional barcodes, the system also included many levels of redundancy. You could draw lines across the strips with a marker and they still would read correctly. And it was even possible to “copy-protect” a printed page of Cauzin strips. Just draw across them with a red felt-tip marker and the scanner could still read them. If you tried to photocopy the page, however, the red highlights would be copied as black and would obliterate the data.
Best of all, you could get a utility that would let you print your own strips on – you guessed it – a LaserJet printer. So I thought it was a brilliant idea to use the Softstrips in my book to make it easier to enter the programs into your computer.
Of course, the Internet soon made it simple to transfer big programs in minutes so the Cauzin system never had a chance to catch on. It was easier to just print a link in a magazine article than to print pages and pages of the strips.
The Cauzin Softstrip system was just the first in a long list of products that I picked to be big winners that then were never heard from again. Technology has many ways of keeping me humble, especially when it comes to making predictions. (However, the Cauzin technology does live on; many conference name badges use a similar system to encode your contact information for scanning.)