I’ve been thinking about QR Codes for a while now. Usually, I dismiss it as a silly technology looking for a purpose. If you don’t know what QR codes are, perhaps it’s because it is the kind of emerging technology that only geeks know of and care about. Rather than try to explain it myself, let’s defer to some better write-ups:
From the Wikipedia page:
A QR Code is a matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by QR scanners, mobile phones with a camera, and smartphones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.
And an excellent article on QR codes at SXSW:
While QR codes have reached a mainstream Japanese audience, in the U.S. QR code usage is limited to alpha geeks–and not all of them are sold on the idea. … Many think QR codes are gimmicky, clumsy, not used well or enough, or that they’re “a solution looking for a problem.”
“QR” supposedly stands for “quick response” but it’s possible that this definition was applied later, just like RSS was rebranded as “Really Simple Syndication”. Even this friendlier definition of RSS was still too geeky and obscure for normal people and eventually “feed” became the mainstream term used to refer to RSS content and other subscribed content. Yes, I’m referring to Twitter and Facebook status updates, since these are also linear streams of content presented in reverse chronological order.
Anyway, the purpose of this article is not to rant about QR codes. The real purpose is to discover the future of this technology, which may be something besides QR codes. This week, I came across this Engadget article about Microsoft Tags and it captured my attention. Here’s an excerpt:
Microsoft might be late to the cameraphone-able barcode game, but it appears to be making up for lost time. Its multi-colored (and, frankly, rather attractive) Tag barcodes added a few important innovations on top of the general QR code concept, and apparently to good effect: 2 billion Tags have been printed since the January 2009 launch, and 1 billion of those Tags were printed in the past four months. Sounds like Microsoft has found some momentum, and they claim to have gained a lead in the publishing industry already.
Here’s what I find interesting about this:
- Microsoft has a history of creating products based on pre-existing technologies and giving them simple and obvious names. The best example is Microsoft Windows. The name alone explains what it is and most people like things to be simple and obvious, especially with computers. At the time, the alternative was a Macintosh, and the name did not explain what it was. Instead, it was often perceived as “expensive”, among other things.
- “Tags” is another example of this practice. Most people can recognize “tag” and guess that it is like a label that helps identify something.
- In a weird way, the colorful Microsoft Tags have a vague similarity to the Windows logo, while a QR code seems to evoke old technologies that lacked color like Xerox copies and UPC bar codes.
- They already have excellent uptake with 2 billion tags. I suppose that translates to 2 billion products or ads or physical items that have a unique tag barcode.
If you visit the Tags website, the story gets more intriguing. Microsoft even did a nice job with the tagline: “Connecting Real Life and the Digital World using Mobile Barcodes!” Wow, since when did Microsoft figure out how to market things. (which, by the way, is different from choosing simple product names)
Microsoft’s approach with Tags seems to be spot-on. They are touting how Tags provides benefits that businesses really care about. Specifically, metrics and reporting are important to large companies whenever they make an investment in media or advertising. Omniture is a great example of this. Companies want to know the ROI of their online properties and marketing campaigns and are willing to pay millions to get the pretty executive reports.
And that’s when I had my “Aha” moment. Tags (or some future version of it) will be the Omniture of the future. The measurement of attention will move beyond websites to the mobile world, which is a mixture of mobile device users, mobile Internet, and the interaction with all content wherever it happens to be. That includes publishing, outdoor ads, local businesses, television, Internet video, coupons, etc. All content and all attention will need to be measurable.
Well, we’re not quite there yet. I feel that the basic problem with Tags and similar barcodes is that it depends on user-initiated interaction with a displayed code. Currently, the interaction model requires a user to take a picture of the code using their mobile device camera. That’s kind of clunky. The call-to-action is really not there unless you specifically draw attention to it and offer an incentive.
What really needs to happen is for mobile devices to be auto-aware of nearby Tags, and hence Tags would need some kind of broadcast mechanism or wireless network to publish to. It seems likely that you would also need micro-circuits that uniquely identify the Tag. In simple terms, I think the Tags of the future will be more like stickers with embedded circuits and code that mobile devices can interact with.
Perhaps in a future article, we can discuss how Tags are being used in the industry and how they might be used in digital publishing.