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Why Not Print the Intelligent Mail Barcode the Intelligent way?

Why Not Print the Intelligent Mail Barcode the Intelligent way?

By David E. Stone

Many of the Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMB) discussions featured in OutputLinks lead one to the conclusion that this bar code (and others) should be produced with a font. In the Advanced Function Presentation world, bar codes are best produced using the Bar Code Object Content Architecture (BCOCA). Users prefer the simplicity and consistency of BCOCA and find it important to be able to print on a variety of printers without tweaking or retesting the bar codes within their printed material. The AFP Consortium has embraced BCOCA as the proper way to print bar codes and is actively enhancing the architecture. In addition, quite a few of the members of the AFP Consortium provide products today that support Intelligent Mail Barcodes as BCOCA objects.

Of course, bar codes are simply marks in a predefined pattern that could be created in many ways (fonts, images, graphics, text rules, etc.); but here are some reasons to prefer BCOCA to these other methods:

  • A BCOCA bar code is self-identifying; anyone parsing the data stream will know that the object is intended to be a bar code and therefore must meet the rules of the symbology specification. There is no architected way to identify a bar code other than with BCOCA.
  • BCOCA devices typically are very careful to take device characteristics (such as pel shape, toner spread, laser strength, write-black vs. write-white technology, etc.) into account when producing bar code symbols.
  • BCOCA objects are resolution independent; therefore the printer draws each bar code symbol based on the current print head resolution and any print quality tuning or other hardware adjustments that will be made to the final bitmap. Printers can also be aware of color management effects when a BCOCA object is processed. Some modern ink jet printers use an anamorphic resolution (different in the X vs. Y directions) and have different spread characteristics in each direction.
  • Fonts used to produce bar codes can produce different results on different devices. Sometimes, print server software substitutes fonts (for example, outline for raster, or 240 pel raster for 300 pel raster when the print head is 240 pel). Some bar codes are pretty easy to produce using a raster font, but others have to be tuned carefully (and therefore are affected by any under-the-covers substitution or resolution change).  Using a font to produce a bar code symbol can be made to work on a specific printer, but might very well not work after a customer has upgraded to a newer printer or moved to another vendor's printer (or even tried to print a job on another printer because of workflow problems).  Because bar codes made with fonts are device-specific, testing is essential when fonts are used, but not so critical with BCOCA.
  • It is typically safer for data stream transform or conditioning software to modify BCOCA Bar Code data rather than text data (because you really have to use some kind of a convention to even find bar codes that are represented by text and sometimes text strings are used for multiple purposes...so you might change more than is intended). Banks and other financial customers are often uncomfortable with software that alters text strings (but less concerned when the same software alters BCOCA object data).
  • Almost every modern IPDS printer supports BCOCA (and most of the newer printers support most of the defined BCOCA function).
  • The input needed to produce a BCOCA bar code is quite simple and consists of a few control parameters (most of which have reasonable defaults) and the actual data to be encoded; the user does not need to understand the bar code symbology definition (the printer does all of the difficult, technical work). In contrast, using a font requires the user to encode the symbol by translating the data characters into a binary sequence for encoding, create the bar and space pattern that represents each character, and format the individual characters into a completed bar code symbol (which can include calculating check digits and carefully adjusting the spacing to get around printer characteristics). This is quite easy for some symbologies, such as POSTNET, but difficult for 2D bar codes and most 4-state bar codes. Usually, you need both a specially designed font and some software to create the code point pattern needed to use the font.

In summary, AFP users can enjoy a better experience printing bar codes on their IPDS printers by simply using the capabilities of the BCOCA architecture rather than drawing pictures of bar codes using fonts, rules, or images. BCOCA is a proven technology that is used by many of the largest production print shops in the world today. The BCOCA architecture is an open standard maintained by the AFP Consortium. Symbologies, such as the Intelligent Mail Barcode, are monitored carefully by members of this international consortium to ensure that the architecture keeps up with changes made by the symbology owners.

David E. Stone currently leads Intelligent Printer Data Stream architecture development and Bar Code Object Content architecture development at InfoPrint Solutions Company in Boulder, Colo. 

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