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Aug 9

Why QR (2D) codes never took the world by storm

Posted on Thursday, August 9, 2012 in User

I believed in Harvey Dent QR codes. I was fascinated by 2D codes and how much more  information they could store compared to regular old bar codes. With the coming of good smartphones with cameras built in, it seemed inevitable that QR codes would take over the world.

The idea that you could just take out your smartphone and make a picture and have a wealth of information on your hands was too good to pass up. You see, traditional barcodes in your local supermarket which store information in one (horizontal) direction only. There is vertical redundancy, which means no matter how tall your barcode is, it still contains only the same information. 2-dimensional optical codes like QR codes store information both vertically and horizontally. An increase in size in either direction means more information can be stored.


Google was a believer and integrated QR codes with Google Local/Places and even started distributing free QR codes to businesses. Microsoft was a believer and created their own (of course). Advertisement agencies of all kinds through QR codes on their posters and with the advent of smartphones, a number of apps were released to allow you easily scan these codes. Users could be scanning links, coupons, promotion codes and much more on-the-go.

What went wrong? Let me rephrase. Have you ever scanned a QR code on a poster for information? You quickly realize that it turns out to be much less fun in practice. Here are the steps:

  1. Pull out your phone from your pocket/purse
  2. Unlock the phone
  3. Find and start the QR scanning app
  4. Take a picture of the QR code. Try to get sharp focus, the right white balance and eliminate shadows.
  5. Picture is unusable, code cannot be found. Maybe your hand shook. Go back to 4.
  6. Read text/open link/save contact or do whatever in the information you got

By the time you think through these steps, you are asking yourself “how badly do I need this information?”. There are use-cases where QR codes work well, like scanning from a monitor. This can spare you having to enter a lot of text on your smartphone manually. An example of this is Google’s two-factor authentication app which uses QR codes for setup (and you should enable it on your Google account pronto).

It seems even Google eventually gave up on QR codes for on-the-go information. So what is the alternative? I usually like to think NFC could provide an answer here (although NFC also has its issues). Basically to collect an NFC tag, you do the following:

  1. Pull out your phone
  2. Unlock the phone
  3. Hold it near the tag for a second
  4. Read text/open link/save contact or do whatever in the information you got

That is 2 steps less (or less than half depending on your phone camera or QR app) than the steps required for getting information from a 2D barcode. Also less fumbling with the camera which can be really annoying. I don’t know about you, but the NFC option sounds more appealing to me. Unfortunately, NFC phones are not yet as pervasive as phone cameras and business adoption is low. However, this could change over time.

The next time you are thinking of doing something with 2D codes, look at the steps above and ask yourself if your target audience would even bother.