Goggles and Tags and QR Codes, oh my!

Why is it so hard to get the american smart phone-carrying public (approximately 40% of the country by now) to understand and adopt various methods for tying offline things to online, mobile information? For instance, picture this, you’re standing at the spice aisle looking at all those crazy spices that McCormick has up there, and you want to know the difference between Cardomom and Chili powder. All you do is scan the back of the package of each wit your smart phone, and Voila!, you’ve gotten a mobile video sent to you autmoatically taht explains what Cardomom is, where it comes from, and what it can be used for. It even might text you a new recipe using it. Genius! But wait:

You’d think it would be simple, but it’s not taken off yet. I first heard about QR Codes from Ogilvy in 2005 and thought it was immediate genius!: a living call to action that could be plastered anywhere and work to bring objects and places to life digitally like never before! Augmented Reality without all the messiness of actual Augmented Reality. But something is blocking that from happening. 2D barcodes and other offline-to-mobile calls to  action are wasting on the vine. Why?

What’s happened in the last 6 years, and why doesn’t everyone use QR codes naturally? Why don’t most people even know what a QR Code  is? (There’s one pictured on the left over there)

The answer lies in the story of Sony versus the world in the days of the VCR wars, when it was up in the air which would rule the home recording marketplace, VHS or betamax. VHS won. Why? Many reasons, but the main one was open standards. Anyone could make a VHS tape and it would record and playback in anyone of dozens of manufacturers’ machines. Except Sony’s. Until they gave in, and the whole world went VHS (other than video production houses, who knew betamax was better quality!)

So what lesson can we learn from the VHS/Betamax battle? Open source usually wins. But now, you have Microsoft inventing their own tag system. and you have ScanLife doing the same. And other companies as well. And now you have the geniuses (really, geniuses!) at Google coming out with Google Googles which let you visually search for information just by picture recognition, and you wonder, why should the simple QR Code ever be the winning format? Because, it’s cheap, it’s easy to create and render, and it’s, basically free. I created the one in this post in about 2 seconds. just google “QR Code Creator” and you’ll get lots, they all work great, no app downloads or anything required.

To read/take advantage of any of these codes or services, you need a smart phone with a camera. The other thing you need is a reader, an application that sits on your smart phone (well, let’s not count RIM/Blackberry as very smart here, and just say iPhone and Android) which you can get for free from your fav appstore. Why won’t this work on your basic feature phone? It will on some, but the software for reading the code through the camera of your phone has to be baked in since you can’t add new apps to most feature phones (by feature phone, i mean a non-smart phone, just your basic Motorola Razr or whatever)

So what will it take for my forecast that QR codes will take off as a form of connectivity between physical things and digital information? First, the smart phone manufactures and mobile phone carriers will have to start putting QR Code readers on every deck (this is already starting to happen with Sprint, Samsung and a handful of others in the US). Next, marketers will have to come up with new methods of connecting with their public targets. McCormick would do well to take my suggestion up there and put it to test. Last, the public will have to become more aware of the codes’ usefulness and willing to use them with ease and comfort, ideally through a customer service application they “have ” to use. Airlines are already using QR codes sent to passengers’ smart phones as substitutes for boarding passes since they have the scanners already at the boarding gates.

As they say, “It’s HUGE in Japan!” Well, QR codes are huge in Japan (90% of consumers use them regularly) and Korea, and large and growing in Europe. In the US, like the mobile phone market itself, the fragmentation that has led companies like Microsoft to come up with their own “cosed  source” approaches, means that we’ll have to just be patient and await the great 2D barcode shakeout.

In the mean time, if you’re a marketer, ask your agency why they haven’t recommended putting a QR code on your packaging, your print advertising, your direct mail piece, and even your business cards. They should have already done so, and if they have, it may be time to listen.