Bunhill: MoD breaks the code

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EVERYTHING seems to be going swimmingly for the humble bar-code. The stripey symbol is worming its way on to everything. You name a product, it has a bar-code on its packaging. Even this newspaper has succumbed.

I'm told the convicts in Aliens III, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, go one step further and have bar-codes tattooed on their shaved heads.

The organisation responsible for allocating bar-codes, the Article Number Association, is obviously delighted.

Its information executive, John Pearce, a 'Mr Barcode' who can hold forth for hours at a stretch on the efficiency benefits of bar-codes, is pleased with progress.

But there is a small fly in the ointment. For bar-codes to be really useful, everyone needs to talk the same bar-code language. And they don't. For instance, Marks & Spencer has devised its own code, exclusive to it and its suppliers.

An international standard (EAN International) has been devised and gradually more and more organisations are conforming to it.

Not all, though. Step forward, please, the Ministry of Defence, which is just starting to ask its myriad suppliers to stamp bar-codes on the products it buys.

Alas, the logistics boffins from the ministry have opted not for EAN bar-codes but an entirely different system devised by Nato. 'Something called Code 39', says Mr Pearce, with barely concealed disgust.