Convenient, Capable and Connected: Why Today's Mobile Consumer is Ready for the 2D Barcode Boom

Note: This is a repost from an article I wrote at DIGIDAY:DAILY

First, a quick technology primer: 

Barcodes are an efficient way to store and retrieve product data — and most people have seen or interacted with 1D (one-dimensional) bar codes. These linear barcodes visually represent data as a set of parallel lines, and are currently in use on products everywhere from the grocery store to the book store. 

2D (two-dimensional) barcodes are different, in that they use a pattern of geometric shapes to represent data. This new visual structure offers a dense array for data storage and error correction, and represents the next generation of scannable data.

So what’s the big deal — why are these codes so cool? 

A 2D barcode can be scanned with a device that nearly every consumer owns today — a mobile phone. They can also singularly contain different types of information:

• Calendar Event
• Contact / vCard
• Email Address
• GeoLocation
• Phone Number

2D codes can be placed almost anywhere — literally. Find them on t-shirts and Facebook pages, on the Times Square JumboTron, to table tents in bars and even in tattoos. These codes can trigger specific actions — a streaming video can start to play, a location can be displayed on a map, a number can be dialed, or a web-page launched — right in the mobile phone that a person uses to scan them with. With one click of the camera, 2D barcodes connect the physical world to the ethereal world.

But if they’re that much better, why haven’t they become more mainstream?

One word: Hardware. To get the majority of consumers to access these codes, they need devices that are Convenient, Capable and Connected (I call this “Wilson’s CCC Conjecture”).

Efforts in the past to get people to adopt barcode scanning failed because the consumer was expected to purchase a scanning device (or send away for a free one), the device performed only one specific action, and it had to be tethered to a computer. Clearly this situation violates the Conjecture and hence doomed the early industry to failure.

Why will the consumer engage now and what’s changed?

The advancement of the mobile phone has delivered the 3 Cs of the Conjecture. With a typical handset’s auto-focus camera, capable operating system and wireless access, all of the elements needed for consumer adoption have been satisfied. Now, there are millions of potential scanners right in consumers’ hands. 

Most handsets are either preloaded with a scanning application or the user is just an application download away from having one.  Scanner ubiquity is nearly upon us and with that the risk for marketers and advertisers will reach acceptable tolerance levels (read: money will be spent on 2D bar code campaigns).

In my next post, I’ll detail the differences between the plethora of bar code options currently in the marketplace, including the more open “QR codes” and Microsoft’s proprietary “Tag” codes.