Monday, January 25, 2010

January Observations -- From the QR Code sandbox — and will QR Codes help printing?

Observations: From the QR Code sandbox — and will QR Codes help printing?

In trying to find a binding theme for this month’s column about sticking my toe into the water surrounding QR Codes, the underlying influence of the movie sensation Avatar triggered the application of one of my central themes: how things all seem to connect to each other and to my world.

But as a tangible piece of writing, this column began with a tweet that linked to a blog that discussed a report, which I then retweeted. The subject? “More Reporters Using Facebook and Twitter.” This is not surprising as the more I read and write, the more I read and write on social media platforms. As an aside, the report also includes the finding that 61 percent of reporters also admitted to using Wikipedia. (And when it comes to these news sources, it should be noted, blogger Michael Sachoff writes, “The survey made it clear reporters and editors are highly aware of the need to verify information they get from social media.”)

So, I started thinking about how I was gathering information (and initially inspiration) for this month’s column. While I’ve been in the printer industry seemingly forever, I’ve frankly never paid a great deal of attention to barcodes, which have actually been around longer than I have. (The original ideas for barcodes date back to the late 1940’s, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barcode.) But it has specifically been the QR Code (see photo and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QR_code) that has found its way onto my radar lately, and for that, I must credit Twitter. The last few months have seen a critical mass of tweets from those whom I follow and those I’ve also flagged on printer-related lists via Tweetdeck and more recently Twitter itself. In particular, @Gail_NK, @johnfoleyjr, and @ToughLoveforX have helped me embark on a basic QR Code education. (Readers, here’s a quick homework assignment: before you start messing around with the QR Codes themselves—follow these three on Twitter.)

QR (for Quick Response) Codes were developed in Japan, and I will forgo a description of how they work, beyond comparing them to the basic barcode functionality that we're all familiar with, similar to those used at the supermarket (see image at left). The ubiquity that’s evident in that situation—printed barcodes on virtually every single item that is manufactured (and more and more, grown)—would be exactly the vision that would excite the printers that produce those codes, especially industrial models. Taking that theme even more broadly, with QR Codes, the key to even further ubiquity is that the “scanner” is now something virtually every person carries around with them in the form of a camera-equipped mobile phone (with the appropriate app installed), and the codes can be used to identify further information, phone numbers, and URLs, and even “take you there” via the phone’s Web browser. To borrow from the banner text at the Web site qrconnect.com, QR Codes can “Increase the Impact of Print. Use QR Codes on anything printed—there is no limit. Mobile users simply point and click to jump to online content, dial the phone, or download information.”

A great New York Times article by Stephanie Clifford titled, “From Print to Phone to Web. And a Sale?” appeared in early January 2010 and describes the application of QR Codes, along with some related technologies, in what might be their most promising manifestation. As included inside of print publications, specifically magazines, QR Codes serve as embedded links in editorial and advertising pages. This solution allows an interested reader to get more information, or even immediately go online and order something, in a very appealing linkage between print and online worlds, potentially tapping the best of both.

Now back to that “everything’s connected” idea. Because this was all starting to sound very familiar, even before reading the Times piece, my mind drifted back a couple of weeks to those year-end tweets linked to lists of “best and worst technology of the decade,” and right up there at the top of those worst lists, was the :cuecat! (see photo). In her short article, Clifford masterfully uses attention to the past to try to predict the future as she explores the history of QR Codes and looks at what might be different this time around. The value proposition seems to be exactly the same—see a magazine ad, scan in a link, and pull up a Web page—but as Clifford points out, there are a couple of key differences, the biggest one being that the cat-shaped scanner of the 10-year-old solution was extra, something that had to be provided to magazine readers and PC owners to make the system work. Now the mobile phone provides that missing link, at least that is what hopeful entrepreneurs and technologists are hoping.

Now after this explana
tion, the question remains whether this technology is good for printing. Assuming the system works, the advertising linkage application is good for print publications as a method to keep the medium relevant and inter-linked with online information. And in this day and age, anything positive for newspapers and magazines is a plus. The benefits for local printers are not as clear, as taking a “scan” (photo) from a screen seems to be equally effective as taking that scan from a printed source. Putting the functions of paper into the world of the virtual—with the transfer of some of paper’s functionality to mobile phones—is certainly occurring in applications like tickets and boarding passes.

To get to know QR Codes better, I suggest getting your hands dirty, and based on the recommendation of @Gail_NK, I have had excellent luck with Optiscan, a $2 app for my trusty (and oft-mentioned) iPhone. I suggest springing for the $2, trying a quick download and starting with the QR codes here (represented on-screen or printed). I think you will be impressed.

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