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NFG (Administrator) #1
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: On QR Codes, MS Tags and other madness.
Last year in Australia Telstra - the big, evil, national carrier - started hyping up QR Codes, a printed 2-dimensional barcode that would allow mobile phones to easily copy information from printed media.  This is a neat feature, used in Japan for about a decade already, that lets your mobile phone 'copy and paste' URLs, email address or other text, from posters, flyers, business cards, etc.

It's pretty nifty, and I've written about it many times:

I even made a QR Code Generator so you can make your own codes in your web browser.

Anyway, my point:

Microsoft has their own 2D barcode system which they're presenting as, basically, a customer-facing shortcut mechanism that'll do mostly the same thing as QR Codes.  They make a very big deal of the fact that it's smaller than a QR Code, and you can do fancy things like make the tag out of flowers or butterflies rather than the austere dots that make up a QR Code.

At first I was appalled: Why are they reinventing the wheel?

Then I got into it, this is pretty neat.  They're much prettier to look at, even without making the image out of coloured cocks or whatever silly clipart you've got lying around.

Then I read a little further. 

The deception starts early: the two tags on the left are unnecessarily large.
(image taken from MS site)

QR Codes are an ISO standard, free and open for all to use in any way they see fit.  In the links above you'll find all kinds of implementations, including the very great, free PHP implementation from Swetake which I use for my generator.

Microsoft's tags are not free: you create the code on their website, so you never really know how it's created.  Then, you download a program for your phone, which scans and reads the codes.  I'm more or less OK with that, though I'd prefer a program I could integrate with my own webpages, but here's the kicker:

Microsoft's tags are free to create and read, for now.  Microsoft says they'll never charge to READ the tags, but...

Quote by Microsoft:
During the beta period, there is no charge to create and use Tags. And in the event that Microsoft decides to charge publishers to use Tags, any Tags that were created and used during the beta, will continue to work, free of charge, for at least two years.

So, developers have a choice: An open, free format used for a long time by phone companies around the world, or a closed Microsoft option that might be free, and might work for more than two years.  QR Codes can contain anything at all, (including images of QR Codes!) but Microsoft tags can only contain four things (URLs, phone numbers, vcard or freetext).

Also, the Microsoft application is bugged: all scans go through their servers, so they gather all the information on what your users are scanning, where QR Codes use whatever browser or email (or whatever else!) client is running on the phone.  They can get away with this as their tags don't work without internet access.  A QR Code is self-contained: it is everything you need.  MS tags don't work at all if your phone has no data plan.

Fuck you, Microsoft.  This is why you're not going to win in the long run: You tie people to your custom solutions, and discard them when you're bored, fucking them all over in the process.  Your solutions need to be better than the ones already extant.  Your cute little tags...  Well, they're not.

This post was edited 2 times, last on 2010-02-02, 15:29 by NFG.
NFG (Administrator) #2
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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I've been thinking of MS' tags all day, and I've concluded that it's nice to have a small, colourful image that scans more easily than QRcodes do.  I get this, I do.  It makes sense.

I'm still not convinced that expiring, expensive online-only codes are the way to go. They only store 100 bits per image, so can't easily contain anything more than a serial number.  When scanned, you go to MS' page to get the data that serial number links to, and are then taken to wherever you need to go. 

What this means in reality is: your links, permanently and unchangeably attached to ads or products, will function only as long as your customers have internet capability on their phones, and (this is important) only as long as Microsoft allows them to work.

Also, the QR Code presented on the MS site (in the image above) is a bit disingenuous.  I don't know what kind of error checking Microsoft built into their tags, but that QR code has the error control almost maxed out.

QR Codes contain a lot of extra dots for error control, so that if some of the code is missing, you can still scan it.  This error control is adjustable: for mission critical uses, you might add a lot of protection.  For throwaway stuff like links on a webpage or on a poster, you might not.  In order to make their code look better, MS maxed out the error control.  The same data WITHOUT that error control takes a ton less space, as you can see:

Microsoft's example was almost 30% larger than it needed to be:

left: Microsoft Q-level version, right: normal L-level version

I'm sure they didn't mean anything by it.

QR Codes don't have to be boring either.  I've seen MacDonalds using QR Codes on placemats with little hamburgers in the middle, Japanese websites with anime girls in the middle, and...  well, check this out.  This image, when scanned, says "ひまわり" or himawari, which means 'sunflower'.


Or, finally, tell me this ain't the sexiest QR Code you ever saw:

NFG (Administrator) #3
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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I've been following this announcement in several places and have noticed a few trends, to which I'd like to respond.


Reading you article you clearly have a very anti-microsoft attitude.

Just to be clear i am not knocking the QR code i just think the MS Tag has some advantages.

1. Ability to track tag usage
2. Can update information after being published
3. Can disable the tag when no longer needed.
4. Smaller size thus easier to scan

My reply was similar to this:

Yeah, I DO have an anti-MS attitude, but that doesn’t stop me from using their products when they best meet my needs.  I am a happy Windows 7 user, for example.

To be clear: the solutions offered by the MS tags are not unavailable to QRCode (or any other competing symbology) users.

1. Tracking? Well your website already logs every visit, and if you send them to a special page, presto, you know who scanned the code.

2. Need to update? A little forward thinking and you send them to an intermediate page, or one that changes, or a clickable link to the new content.

3. Disable the tag? Turn the page into a 404 or even better, a new ad. The smaller size is nice, but QRcodes are (as I demonstrated) quite a bit smaller than MS would have you believe, AND they can contain actual information, rather than a serial number.

I had a QRCode on my business cards in Japan. It contained my phone number, email and URL. A user in a mineshaft could update his phone with my details, but a MS tag user must be online and visit a webpage to do the same. Overseas users facing extremely high data rates might not bother with an MS tag, but a QRcode is free. Also, permanent. The MS tags are not.

It’s pretty, but it’s not any more useful beyond the easy-scan properties.

My biggest beef is, really, that I can't really abide gatekeepers controlling my business' content.  It's MINE.  If Microsoft no longer wants to spend money on tags, everything I print is useless.  Their two year minimum guarantee is preposterous - I'm here for the long haul.

I think one of the things that appeals to people about this is its simplicity: people with no knowledge are led by the hand through the scary process of creating a tag, and have an account they can refer to.  It's the kind of thing created for people in suites, and for marketing students trying to impress management in their first job.  Boss wants a status report?  Microsoft provides!

QR codes require thought, and planning, and a little bit more capability than the MS tags.   If you want to track it, you have to set up the tracking yourself, whip up a script to comb through the logs and do the graphing hard work yourself (or use a spreadsheet to create it, etc).

I'm all for making things easy.  I figured it out the hard way and I'm proud of that, but not everyone's got the time or inclination, fine.

But I'm annoyed by anyone who thinks these things are new or revolutionary.  They're cute, simple, effective, and controlled by someone who does not have your best interests in mind.
NFG (Administrator) #4
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Sexy QR Codes
Via boingboing, I found the making-of video for the girl+QR Code seen two posts up:

NFG (Administrator) #5
Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Facebook has QR Codes!  Wait, now they're gone...
Facebook had a very short-lived QR Code feature up tonight.  Thanks to Andrew for pointing it out...  These new options, appearing under your profile pic, did not work and simply produced a blank image.  Two options were available: A link to your facebook profile page, and a link to update your status with whatever you typed into a pop-up box.

Kind of odd, that second one: It loads facebook, asks the user to log in as normal, and then brings up the status-update page, with the whatever you typed in pre-filled for you.  Why would you be telling anyone else what to set their status to?

Anyway, here are the two links that they encode for you:

For reference, here's the link facebook used:<string to encode>

To prove I'm not making this up (as much as you can prove anything on the interwebs):

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