Google vs. Microsoft: Let the 2D Mobile Barcode Wars Begin

In my last post, I covered the types of information that a 2D bar code can store, and why that is cool for customers, advertisers and publishers alike. I also introduced the Wilson CCC Conjecture, or the idea that consumers need devices that are convenient, capable, and connected, for any type of mobile advertising -- including 2D barcodes -- to proliferate.

Since my first installment, I’ve seen a lot of movement in the barcode space, as marketers are starting to focus their attention and money on this technology. As an example, Calvin Klein has put up huge billboards in New York and Los Angeles, replacing its iconic images of scantily-clad, denim-wearing models, with decidedly unsexy, boxy, red QR codes. The tagline is “Get It Uncensored,” and when you point your barcode-enabled mobile phone camera at the billboard ... well, I don’t want to be a spoiler, go download a free QR app and try it yourself here. This is the type of activity that will push 2D barcodes into the mainstream.

As barcodes go mainstream, there are dominant formats emerging as the standard. Early efforts arose from small startups that have created proprietary formats, but the two that have gained the most traction are from companies that have deep pockets: Google's QR Codes* and Microsoft's Tags. Why might one format succeed over the other? Open vs. Closed, respectively, is one answer.  VHS vs. Betamax is probably the other.

Google's QR Codes vs. Microsoft's Tags

Open: Google has made their development efforts open-source so that developers can both create and interpret the QR Codes. The company has also integrated QR Codes into its small business Place Pages, and given business owners a QR Code poster that will allow passersby to scan and get information on that business instantly. If you are an Android device user, QR Codes are popularly used to take a consumer straight to a downloadable application, ringtones and other content from the Android Market.

Closed: Microsoft, alternatively, has decided to keep their efforts proprietary. There is no mobile software development kit (SDK) available for developers to build applications that could use the Tag concept, thus hampering acceptance of the format. While anyone can generate a Tag from the Microsoft Tag site, a developer has to login to obtain information on individual Tag usage. Developers also can't create their own custom system for managing the creation and eventual reporting of the Tag campaign. There is even rumination that Microsoft will at some point charge for some of the Tag features.

VHS: Google’s efforts will bring widespread adoption of the QR Code standard.

Betamax:  Microsoft spent a lot of time and money creating the Tag.  It is technically a superior design; it offers incredible error correction (image can be scanned upside down, shadows can be on image etc.) but the lack adoption will make it a niche product at best.

Regardless of the format that wins, this is an interesting space to watch. My prediction is that 2D barcodes will become as ubiquitous as web addresses with the instant gratification via your mobile phone, so expect to see them everywhere you look in the near future -- from magazine ads, to movie screens, to soda cans.

*Note: The Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave developed the QR Code.  It is defined and published as an ISO standard - free from any license.