ReadWriteWeb Technology DeathWatch: QR Codes

The ReadWriteWeb DeathWatch has tagged 13 companies against the ropes. But this week we’re trying something new, taking a close look at technologies on their way out. First up, the QR Code, a concept that was always more flash than bang.

The Basics

In 1994, Denso Corporation created the Quick Response (QR) Code, a 2-dimensional square barcode. It was more easily readable than traditional Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes, was capable of storing a great deal more information, and its design was durable enough to be read through severe damage to a tag.

For 15 years, the QR code lived a quiet life in factories and warehouses, but when camera-loaded, apps-enabled smartphones burst on the scene, advertisers saw an opportunity. Businesses began embedding URLs in QR codes (and other 2-dimensional tags) so users could simply snap a picture of a tag and visit a website without having to type in the address. Clever marketers exploited the QR Code’s extended data storage, filling extra space with custom colored images and text. Microsoft even launched a competing product, which is usually a sign that a technology has arrived.

The Problems

Missing Data Used properly, QR codes make it very easy to segment customers and campaigns. For example, a real estate agent might use different QR Codes in her print campaigns and yard signs, so clicks on different tags would show her which medium is driving interest. Unfortunately, since QR Codes usually launch a Web browser, the agent won’t get access to the most critical piece of information – the prospect’s phone number.

This is a shame, since by definition, everyone who snaps a QR Code is holding a live, connected cell phone and interested enough to engage. A simple, low-tech “Text this code to this number for more information” message would be accessible to a far greater number of prospects and create a workable lead with valid contact info.

To be fair, a QR code can also be configured to send a text message on scan, but manual text messaging has several advantages. Many users find auto-launch texting jarring and intrusive, and only a subset of phone users have compatible handsets.

User Error: For most users, scanning QR codes isn’t all that easy. Many smartphones still require users to download a custom code reading app. The odds that the average user will do so when presented with a code to scan are pretty minimal. The chances the same user will go back home and download the app later? Even for users with an integrated QR code reader, the process still isn’t sufficiently automated. On my Android phone, the process involves five steps, the fourth of which is completely unintuitive.

  1. Open the Camera app.
  2. Take a picture of the code.
  3. Open the picture.
  4. Click “Share”
  5. Click “Decode QR Code”

Code processing will be easy enough for mass consumption the day every phone’s camera auto-senses a code and prompts the user to autoload a link, and not a moment before.

Programming Error: Like most technologies looking for a reason to exist, QR codes are completely misunderstood by marketers trying to shoehorn the “next big thing” into places it shouldn’t go. I’ve seen QR codes on roadside billboards (dangerous), athletes' butts (tricky and awkward), and – my favorite – in email signatures or on Web pages in which the user could just click on a text link. For every sensible use of a QR code (for example, subway advertisements or bus shelters), there’s a really dumb one that just makes marketers look silly.

Better Technologies: Perhaps the flashiest replacement for QR Codes is Augmented Reality (AR), which overlays artificial reality on a backdrop of the real world. As I have pointed out, AR holds more promise than QR codes because it can provide immersive environments in a current context, takes up no space in print media and can be applied retroactively to existing assets.

Near Field Communications (NFC) and Radio Frequency Identification(RFID) are two very different but functionally similar technologies with strong futures. Unlike QR Codes, NFC and RFID do not require line-of-sight, and they have massive industry backing. RFID chips are already showing up in everything from US passports to tennis shoes, and the list of NFC-enabled cell phones continues to grow.

The Retro Voice Option: Led by the iPhone’s Siri, faster processors are putting a new twist on the old pastime of talking into your phone. Speaking the name of a company or person into your phone is a lot easier than typing in a URL. Plus, a voice-activated search can provide lots more information than a directed click of a link or tag.

The Prognosis

So, if not all users have smartphones, not all smartphones can process QR codes and not all users of capable smartphones bother to scan the codes, what do QR codes really bring to the party?

Over the next few years, marketers will begin to target QR codes more effectively, but without simpler client tools and much better awareness, it’s likely that texting, speech-based searches and alternative scanning technologies will win out. It won’t be long until QR Codes return to their industrial roots where their comparatively low cost make them more appealing than RFID chips.

Can This Technology Be Saved?

Probably not. It isn’t worth the effort. Without a major corporate backer, who has a real stake in the survival of the standard in commercial advertising?

Company Deathwatch History

For an update on our baker's dozen of company Deathwatches, check out ReadWriteWeb DeathWath Update: The Unlucky 13.

 

Puzzle image courtesy of Shutterstock.