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When I was in Japan a few years ago, I was astounded by the abundance of square blocks of black dots (see below) on advertising and print which I later found out were called QR codes. The concept is actually quite ingenious. A standard barcode can only store so much information in the thickness and positioning of the barcode lines because its a one-dimensional code. But a two-dimensional QR code can store a ton more data. This makes it possible to store long web addresses, include error detection/correction methods, and even embed text information in more sophisticated languages (like Japanese).


QR codes have slowly been increasing in adoption in the US and Europe as phone camera/image recognition technology has improved to meet their Japanese counterparts. But, Microsoft decided to take the technology one step further: instead of just being black and white blobs, why not introduce greater customization, tracking ability, and a little color?

Behold, Microsoft Tag (HT: Register). The main visual difference you’ll see are the availability of color and custom designs:

image image image image

Underneath the surface lies a bunch of other enhancements, including:

  • Support across most major phone brands
  • Tag manager to provide analytics information on how people are reading your tags
  • API to allow developers access to the tag manager
  • Allows you to change Tag behavior based on a user’s previous tag viewing history or even the user’s location
  • New error correction/color allow for smaller tags and better translation

The question is, will businesses use it? On a basic execution level, the Register brings up the potential problem of recognition. As ugly and clunky as “vanilla” QR codes are, they are very distinctive. Will it still be easy to identify Microsoft’s smaller, customized in-color boxes as codes to scan?

On a business-level, the biggest problem is that “Vanilla” QR codes do quite well in terms of functionality already. Microsoft will need to provide significant value-add in their tag manager/API/customization features to get businesses to switch to a format that Redmond has control over. Given Microsoft’s strengths in software, I’m also astonished they didn’t build in more functionality to make it an easier sell (such as the ability to embed more sophisticated instructions in the codes, or to run specific software/pass specific information when used in a certain context) – a future enhancement, perhaps?

With that said, those who rely on advertising to make a living may find it pretty easy to hand over the reins to a well-put-together Microsoft project as a hedge on their increasing dependence on Google and Apple for their livelihoods. In any event, there’s probably no harm in downloading the reader on your phone or checking out the Microsoft Tag website.

(Image credits – Microsoft Tag website)

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