Why Product Information Is Like Location

This is the first in a series of blog posts looking at the parallels between locations and products.

As I type this, I’m sitting at 818 Stewart Street, Suite 900, in Seattle, Washington. I’m also sitting at 47.615645, -122.335058 and 35.668 m. I haven’t cloned myself; however, these are two different and standardized ways of pinpointing a location. We’re more accustomed to the first way—a postal address. We’re less accustomed to the second way—latitude, longitude, and elevation. Despite its relatively rare use in common conversation, this use of the Geographic Coordinate System allows us to specify every location on Earth by a set of numbers, letters, or symbols.

I’m often struck by the parallels between locations and products. When Google first started mapping every inch of pavement, it didn’t seem all that useful. Now, however, it seems that every app and website is location-aware and we wouldn’t know what to do without that information.

Soon we’ll feel the same way about apps and websites being product-aware. With the advent of chat bots, AI and every known platform attempting to monetize, more and more apps and websites are becoming product-aware. But, for Product Awareness to fully follow the path and success of location awareness, we have a lot of challenges to overcome.

History of Street Addressing

No one knows exactly when people first started referring to streets by name, but descriptors like “it’s the main street in town” or “it’s the road that goes to Warsaw” must have quickly become standardized into “Main Street” or “Warsaw Road.” Parisians first used house numbers on the houses built on the Pont Notre-Dame bridge. From there, each country gradually adopted house numbers, with the first street numbering schemes applied throughout Europe in the 18th century.

In general, now each country has its own standard conventions for street addresses that specify things like house number, street, city, state/province, and country. Using street addresses, we can usually find our way to any location.

The key word above however, is “usually.” Mapping errors have caused addressing problems since the moment we first specified addresses on maps. One example is when a severe mapping error caused a demolition crew to tear down the wrong house earlier this year. Mistakes like these should make us more likely to use latitude and longitude, but sets of random-seeming numbers are much harder to remember than number, street, and city.

History of Latitude and Longitude

Although latitude and longitude now comprise our standard planetary grid system, they came about in different ways. Latitude, the parallel lines drawn around the Earth moving from north to south, was calculated using the sun and star positions as early as 600 BC by the Phoenicians. The equator was the natural mid-line for latitude, so navigators and sailors settled on their standards fairly quickly.

Longitude, however, was a different story. Although the concept had been around since around 200 BC, it took a long time to both measure and standardize it. It wasn’t until a time piece was invented that was more accurate than the pendulum clock and could be used at sea, and the adoption of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1884, that a unified view emerged.  Even then, it took another 30 more years until the last holdouts changed their nautical documents to a common Prime Meridian.

All in all, it took 2,200 years.

History of Product Identification

The history of product identification resembles the history of location, although the timeline isn’t quite the same. Unlike location, there wasn’t a driving need for product identification standards in 600 BC. Historically, we used the barter system for tens of thousands of years, then moved to marketplaces where we exchanged money for goods.

With the advent of mass production, we stopped having one-of-a-kind products and started to identify products by category, name, and description. Like the evolution of street names, where numbering houses allowed people to figure out where they were going, manufacturers and stores needed inventory control mechanisms to figure out where their parts and products were going. Numbers were easier to write than long names or descriptions, so manufacturers invented manufacturing part numbers (MPNs) and stores invented stock keeping units (SKUs).

Much like sailors’ needs pushed forward standardization of latitude and longitude, the concept of automated checkout, which Wallace Flint proposed in 1932, began to drive commerce towards unique product identifiers beyond SKUs and MPNs. Interestingly, just like longitude, the concept came about before we had the proper technology to implement it. The patent office issued the barcode patent in 1952, but the technology to use it didn’t exist until the 1970s.

Once barcode technology existed, U.S. industry leaders selected the Universal Product Code (UPC) as the single standard for product identification, and the first product (a pack of Wrigley’s gum) was scanned in 1974. UPCs quickly expanded by a digit from 12 to 13 to include country identifiers in 1977, birthing the European Article Number (EAN). UPCs are a subset of EANs, although we still use “UPC” to refer to the number more commonly in North America.

Meanwhile, the largest book retailer in Great Britain decided to move to a computerized warehouse in 1967. To do this, they needed a standardized book numbering system, birthing International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN). In 1970, ISBN became an ISO standard, causing widespread adoption. ISBNs became 13 digits in 2007 and can be used synonymously with EANs — rather convenient for barcode scanning.

An industry initiative called Sunrise 2005, established by GS1 US (the US standards organization for barcoding), decided that the alphabet soup of EANs, UPCs, and ISBNs should be combined into a single standard. They focused on producing a 14-digit Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) that rolled EAN, UPC, and ISBN into a global standard. Recently, Google made GTIN mandatory for product advertising, prompting a big step toward standardization.

While the product identification timeline moved significantly faster than location identification, we still haven’t hit our unifying moment for product information. GTIN isn’t (or is recognized as) the Prime Meridian for commerce. Why not? I’ll cover that in greater depth in my next post on GTIN.

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