UPDATE 12/13/11 – Microsoft has capitulated; now offering support for QR codes. ShareSquare unofficial statement: “We told you so, nah nah na boo boo.”
Sidebar: This post contains rhetoric that is more opinionated than our standard blogs. However, this is something we at ShareSquare feel strongly about, and we believe the truth needs to be told.
Can you imagine an internet with hyperlinks that only work on Windows computers? Or via an AT&T ISP?
Consumer QR code scanning in the United States is a nascent behavior that holds enormous potential for driving offline-to-mobile engagement, ecommerce and real world analytics. But fragmentation in code formats threatens to kill it before it’s born.
Mobile Tag just raised 6.6M euros with the intent of bringing their proprietary codes across the pond. They’ll be joining Microsoft Tag and AT&T Barcode Services in pushing a format that is incompatible with the majority of smartphone barcode scanning apps in the US. So if you want to access the content, you’ll need to download their specific app.
Do you already have a barcode scanning app? If you’re reading this chances are you do. Scan Mobile Tag’s logo, as this TechCrunch commenter did. You’ll get a meaningless string of numbers. Why are Microsoft and others opting to add a significant adoption barrier to an already fledgling consumer behavior? They’d like to own the data and the ecosystem around it.
After ShareSquare’s recent TechCrunch coverage, I was contacted by Microsoft, and they tried to sell us on switching from QR codes to Microsoft Tag. I said no. While ShareSquare is not in the business of generating a specific type of code it’s in our best interest, and the industry’s best interest, to see scanning go mainstream. In Japan, market penetration occurred top-down: NTT Docomo had carrier hegemony and decided all new handsets would natively support this functionality. In the United States, it’s happened bottom-up. No domestic carrier could have unilaterally pushed this feature onto a critical mass of handsets, even if they wanted. Instead there’s a groundswell of apps like ShopSavvy (+18M downloads), and others. All of these support QR codes – none of them support the aforementioned proprietary formats.
So in addition to confusing the consumer, this fragmentation is actively inhibiting a budding network’s critical mass. Each provider will talk your ear off about their format’s unique features, but for consumer scanning, none of these are significant enough to matter. The X factor is delivering a payload (the encoded information) that all mobile scanning apps can recognize and use.
There are some B2B applications where a proprietary code makes sense, like logistics and shipping. However if stateside consumer scanning has any hope of achieving a social tipping point, an open standard needs to become ubiquitous. None of what I’m saying is a secret btw: America’s largest and longest-standing commercial code provider, ScanLife/ScanBuy, has been promoting the open-source QR code for this offline-to-mobile use case since last year.
Microsoft, AT&T and now Mobile Tag would do themselves, and the industry, a huge favor by moving away from their proprietary formats and focusing their efforts elsewhere, like making the content behind the code more valuable. If this consumer behavior has any hope of taking root in America, the QR code proper needs to become the de facto physical hyperlink connecting the real world to the mobile web.
Founder & CEO
Addendum: as long as the gloves are coming off, I’ll take the time to point out that the first step of becoming an evangelist for something is spelling the word right on your LinkedIn. Step #2 is probably making sure you’ve got something worth evangelizing.