The bar code industry has been observing the evolution of QR (Quick Read) tags and what it means for the business with mixed feelings. While the standard has existed for years, it hasn’t really had much potential before the advent of mobile phones with respectable cameras. The revolution has actually already started, quietly, in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan, in its trendsetting fashion, started embracing the QR tag as a mass marketing tool around 2005, and its use has exceeded all expectations, reaching a baffling 42% penetration in the consumer market in 2008 (source). Now Microsoft is not only jumping on the wagon, it’s reinventing the platform with a clear business goal in mind, promissing a visible shakeup in how we all see consumer marketing in the West.


The origins

Before jumping into news, let’s take a moment to see how any why the QR code has been successful in Japan. A few years ago, tourists returning form Japan have started reporting on a curious phenomenon they observed, where every other advertisement in papers, on billboards, and even restaurant menus and business cards featured a curious 2D bar code. Not only that, some advertisements used the bar code as their focal point, and the locals loved taking pictures of said codes on their mobile phones.


QR code, all the rage in Japan

QR code, all the rage in Japan

As it turns out, the technology is a unique bridge between printed media, mobile technology, and Internet technology, allowing the user to take a mobile picture of a printed bar code, and instantly accessing the website to which the encoded URL points. No more notepads, URLs, texting, no more futile attempts to memorize a website when riding the bus or grabbing a lunchtime snack.


The technology was embraced by users with little hesitation, blowing up into a virtually unheard of 42% of active marketing penetration with both genders and all age groups. Japanese consumers of all shapes and sizes are actively accessing QR tag encoded information on their cellphones every day. Such a platform allows the advertisers to track their campaigns in clearly identified metrics, and the industry has been quietly bracing for the arrival of the QR code in the west.


A different market

As with many other Japanese fads, the West shows reserved optimism when it comes to global application. The culturally fragmented nature of the “prime” markets in the EU and US are cautious in their responses, until one of the industry giants throws his full weight behind the issue.

Microsoft took notice in April of 2007, and introduced its own standard of compact 2D codes. They announced gradual practical application of the so-called Microsoft Tag by the end of 2007, and predicted that the platform would gradually evolve as mobile phone camera technology improved enough to capture smaller and smaller MS Tag images.

2008 came and passed, and instead of having to remember to check on the progress on the Microsoft Tag front, the makers of the new technology have hit us with an avalanche of announcements. Press pieces are popping up left and right, and MS has launched a website dedicated to the technology. Currently in beta, but the last time I looked, so was Gmail, so that’s not exactly saying much in terms of maturity and accessibility these days.

Is Microsoft Tag better than QR?

The million dollar question, quite literally. Microsoft would have you believe that it is, mostly due to two factors. Primarily, they developed MS Tag and are throwing their significant weight behind it. Secondly, Microsoft Tags don’t actually store any information, except for a unique ID which can fetch more data stored on Microsoft servers. This paves the way for a proprietary standard, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise to many. Unlike the QR codes, which can be encoded and printed by anyone, the Microsoft Tag will be backed up by a Microsoft solution, which is free in the Beta phase, but could turn into a paid service at any moment.

Technically, MS does mention that the tags will be smaller than QR codes (which makes sense, considering that it doesn’t need to carry the actual information forwarded to the user). It also claims to have no issues with a common QR issue, which is the need for high focus imaging and/or macro lenses. Aparently the MS Tag will easily be read when out of focus, and initial video and reports from the published applications also note that the scanning is done instantly, as opposed to the somewhat arduous process demanded by some QR tag mobile applications.


Tag size comparison

Tag size comparison


The bottom line

The western marketing and bar coding industry could not decide what to do about the emerging Japanese QR code phenomenon, and Microsoft seems poised to make the decision for us with their alternative. Like it or not, when Microsoft makes something it’s a force to be reconed with, and the Microsoft Tag is here to stay, and while it’s not likely to reach the popularity of Japanese proportions, it’s also not going to be ignored.

As with most marketing methods, its popularity will be judged long after the major players in the industry have decided that they can’t afford the risk of being the last to adopt it. The recently released video advertisement is generating interest, so they’ve already missed out on being the first.