Bar codes are used to identify and keep track of everything from shipping crates to cans of soda. But they're really nothing more than an index to a data base, which stores each product's price and other data. In that sense, bar codes are just an identification tag--like an auto's license plate. Symbol Technologies Inc. hopes to change that with what it says may be the next generation of bar codes.

In October, the Bohemia (N.Y.) bar-code-equipment maker will introduce a scheme called Portable Data File (PDF). Unlike traditional bar codes with their vertical black stripes, PDFs store data as a series of black dots in a box, which the company claims to allow up to 100 times more information to be stored on the symbol itself. A 1-inch-square PDF, for instance, can hold the entire Gettysburg Address. Symbol says the technology could benefit hospitals, where a postage-stamp size PDF could hold a patient's entire medical history.

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