MS Tags vs QR Codes

I don't want this to be seen as an anti-Microsoft rant. I'm a great fan of Windows Phone 7, my Microsoft 4000 keyboard is the only device I'm comfortable typing on, and my Xbox hardware is still going strong years after release. I'm also heartily impressed with Microsoft's continuing support of the Creative Commons. True, I don't use Windows at home - but I don't blindly devote my life to knocking them unfairly.

But I do have serious concerns about Microsoft's attempts to enter the 2D tag market. While talking about QR Codes on Twitter, the Online Community Manager for Microsoft Tags sent me this message.

It seems that Elliot spends his entire time trying to convince QR users that MS Tags are the next big thing. But are they really? Not everyone is convinced. I'd like to take you through why I think that Microsoft's tag strategy is misguided and why you should avoid using them.

MS Tag

Example MS Tag


Indirect

I've spoken before about the perils of indirect codes. Essentially, an MS Tag contains just a number, the reader then has to connect to the Internet, query Microsoft's servers, then return the information to you.

This is worse than a QR code and raises the following questions:

  • What if Microsoft's database goes down, gets corrupted, is switched off, or is generally unavailable?
  • Can Microsoft profit from your data?
  • When Microsoft starts charging - what happens if you don't pay?
  • If a customer is roaming, or doesn't have internet access, how do they get the content? A QR card containing a business card can transfer contact details to your phone even if you don't have an Internet connection.

One positive feature of using an indirect code is that you can update the destination information. You can log on to Microsoft's servers and point your code at a different URL, that way, you don't need to reprint your tags.
Of course, you can do this with a QR code as well! If your QR code points to example.com/ScanMe - all you need to do is update your .htaccess file to redirect the scanner to a different page.

Controlled By a 3rd Party

With a QR code it is you who are in control. When you relinquish that control, you open yourself up to a world of uncertainty.
Take a look at these two clauses from the Microsoft Tag Terms of Use

we may change this Agreement, the API or any Service at any time and for any reason, with or without notice. Such changes may include removal of features, addition of new features or the requirement of fees for previously free features

So, once your MS Tag is getting a few hundred scans a day, Microsoft can send you an email saying

"Nice campaign you're running there. It would be a pity if anything happened to it. Shall we say $10 per scan?"

Or, take a look at this fine piece of legalese.

THE API AND SERVICE, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO TAGS AND REPORTS, ARE PROVIDED "AS IS" WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND. MICROSOFT AND/OR ITS RESPECTIVE SUPPLIERS MAKE NO REPRESENTATIONS ABOUT THE SUITABILITY, FUNCTIONALITY, ACCURACY OR AVAILABILITY OF THE SERVICE OR TAGS, OR THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THE DOCUMENTS, REPORTS AND/OR RELATED GRAPHICS PUBLISHED AS PART OF THE SERVICE OR IN CONJUNCTION WITH ANY TAGS FOR ANY PURPOSE

Now, I know that all services disclaim liability. But a QR code isn't a service. It's a specification. No one can suddenly revoke it. It will never stop working because a company goes out of business or simply decides to retire a service.

More Expensive To Print

This isn't a trivial point. A QR code works best in black and white - but you can use colours if you want. MS Tags require a complex colour printing process. That's expensive if you're printing out fliers, photocopying leaflets, or simply ordering business cards.

You can hack MS Tags to make them readable in black and white - but it's not officially supported.

I'll agree that the basic QR code is nothing much to look at - but that doesn't mean you can't make them as visually interesting as MS Tags if you want.

Limited Availability

I'm a big fan of Windows Phone 7. You would think it would be natural to ensure that every WP7 device has an MS Tag reader. I asked Oded Ran, Microsoft UK's Head of Consumer Marketing for Windows Phone, if that was the case.

I understand better than most the realities of bringing a device to market. It's a constant battle over which features have to make the cut. It just seems odd to me that Microsoft didn't insist on a tag reader to be installed. True, there are readers available in the Windows Phone 7 app store - but it strikes me a glaring omission not to capitalise on the new platform. The MS Tag reader wasn't even available at launch. I'm sure Microsoft have a high level of confidence in both platforms, but it's a worrying gap.

While Microsoft claim that they're available on more phones than other readers, I find that hard to believe. What's more, because the code is proprietary, you're once again reliant on Microsoft to release a reader for your platform. If MS makes a business decision not to support, say, Bada, you literally cannot reach those customers. You can see the full list of supported phones at http://www.gettag.mobi/ - Bada isn't on the list - and there's no indication of when or if it will ever be available.

Once again, the open standard wins through. Readers can be created by anyone for any platform.

Not as Recognisable

It's pretty cool that MS Tags can be merged into images like these.
Owly Images
But how do you let users know that it's a scannable image? You either need an extra graphic or text explaining which image can be scanned.
A QR code has a distinct look which is easy for a customer to recognise.

Continuing Support

It's hard introducing a new technology to a crowded marketplace - but once again, Microsoft haven't done themselves any favours with developers. The MS Tag support portal is eerily quiet and littered with unanswered questions.
True, there is only a small team working on this - but it still strikes me as a bit of a half-hearted effort.

Final Thoughts

QR Codes are an open and published standard (ISO/IEC18004). There are no patent or royalty fees to pay. Ever.

I struggle to see what MS Tags bring to the party. Their one strength - their attractive multi-coloured nature - turns out to be a considerable weakness in terms of cost to print and longevity. What happens when those colours fade in the sunlight?

Everything else about them strikes me as a huge risk. A closed proprietary standard which exists solely on the whim of Microsoft. At any time Microsoft can turn it off or start charging you money for campaigns which are already live. Those are two huge risks which simply aren't present with QR codes.

Overall, I can't find any clear advantage when using MS Tags.

Think I'm wrong? Please let me know in the comments below.


28 Responses to “MS Tags vs QR Codes”

  1. David Hopkins Image of David Hopkins

    I have been looking at QR Codes for a while now and think they are starting to make their way into the market in the UK (supermarket retailer Waitrose is using them in their Christmas advert campaign this year) and into the classroom.

    While the MS versions give better control and 'style' than the 'boring' black-and-white QR Code the fear is, and I agree with you in your post above, that people will not recognise the MS version if they see it. This is not the case for the QR Code version.

    With hope the MS version will soon drop off the radar if enough of us use the alternative and write it up as the clearer and more dynamic system.

    All the best, David.

    Reply
  2. Bex Lewis Image of Bex Lewis

    David drew my attention to this article, and I have to say I hadn't heard of the MS codes before, and I have to agree that I think I would stick with non-proprietry codes which have a distinctive look (i.e. QR Codes). I have played with a few codes, and have one for my project bigbible.org.uk - but as we're trying to draw in those scared of technology I haven't used it in any publicity... yet!

    Best
    Bex

    Reply
    • David Hopkins Image of David Hopkins

      Hi Bex - I found that a softly-softly approach got me no where so I just startes using the codes, subtly at first so I didn't scare people, then a little more as time wore on. Those who were interested askd, those who weren't ignored them.

      Good luck

      All the best, David.

      Reply
  3. Mark Hawkins Image of Mark Hawkins

    Slightly off the direct subject of this post, but any insights on micro QR code-like images (not the technical term)?

    Seen them appearing, incidentally placed on formal hard mail from banks and on products like digital cameras. Just wondering what purpose they serve - asset management? - and for whom.

    Thanks. Great post as usual, Terence.

    Reply
    • David Hopkins Image of David Hopkins

      Hi Mark - I think they're small QR Codes - I scanned the code on my credit card bill when I saw it and it just came up with some random (to me anyway) numbers which may or may not relate to some internal reference ...?

      I wonder if anyone who works with them can comment?

      All the best, David

      Reply
      • Terence Eden Image of Terence Eden

        They're usually DataMatrix codes. All they contain is the tracking number used by the mail sorting machine to sort your envelope at the distribution centre.

        Whenever I've scanned them, it's usually just a customer reference number - which you'll normally see printed nearby.

        Reply
  4. Steve Image of Steve

    Glad to see more ppl talking about the issues with MS Tags. Proprietary codes should not become standard for all the reasons you have listed. There are issues with QR Codes, but mainly because they are being used badly in high vis places.

    Reply
  5. Nick Sharratt Image of Nick Sharratt

    The big advantage MS tags had in the testing I've done is that they are scalable much easier than qr codes. The tags can cope with significant image degredation and remain readable, while the error detection and correction in QR codes is relatively limited. This was particularly noticeable with the poor camera in an iPhone 3G - much less of an issue with better phone cameras. As an example, I could print a tag, photograph it (badly), display that sunken on a monitor and still scan it quickly and reliably with a the iPhone. Trying the same thing with a QR code failed even when much more care was taken to try to keep quality.

    How is this important? Well, for marketers, an image that can still be scanned when it shows up at an oblique angle in a product placement or similar is worth real money.

    I think the proprietry/open debate is important but not a deal breaker. History of technology is filled with examples of proprietary tech that becomes a defacto standard eventually without dire consequences.

    The other point I think this article misses is the traffic monitoring and reporting that MS are providing for free which users would need to implement themselves otherwise with QR codes. Again, useful for marketing but also very useful for anyone else using codes to know if they are being used or not, and if so, by whom.

    I think both options have their merits, and only time will tell which is the VHS/Betamax - but perhaps the most telling pointer is the lack of MS backing for their own tech, despite it actually being pretty darn smart (eg if tags were the open source option, I doubt there would be room for QR codes too).

    Reply
    • Terence Eden Image of Terence Eden

      Thanks for the comment Nick. A couple of points.

      QR codes can cope with up to 30% data loss - which should be more than adequate for most use. I'd be interested in seeing what MS can cope with.

      Regarding the traffic monitoring - I don't know of a single webmaster who can't install Google analytics or similar. Yes, it's nice to have a ready made interface - but does any website not have tracking on it?

      If MS Tags do become successful, I hope the code is opened up sufficiently to allow people to either write their own scanners or run their own servers.

      Reply
      • Steve Image of Steve

        Beat me to those answers Terence.

        MS Tags do cope better at much smaller sizes, but then the reading of QR Codes is improving. For instance, I have a 15mm sq QR on my business card containing all my contact info - 32*32, 4 alignment indicators - which is set in a warm dark grey rather than black (horrors!) and yet is read by at least half a dozen scanners with no issues.

        The only real advantage MS Tags had was the analytics, but then that it available from a multitude of sources for QRs now, with both free and paid for accounts available. I think it's fairly obvious from the wording in Microsoft's Ts&Cs that they were planning to charge at some point in the future, at which point users would be tied in and feel they had to pay.

        Reply
    • Patrick Donnelly Image of Patrick Donnelly

      @nick - What does "scalable" mean in terms of usage?

      As a 2d code designer, who has made both branded QR codes and branded MsTags, I think the EC levels are very similar. And, both can be easily branded. And, QR codes actually can usually be rotated a bit easier then MsTags ( only from my personal experiences ). I have been testing a lot of this with my art http://www.qr1337.com , so I have been pushing the limits professionally and personally for a few years now.

      I love the tone of your comments. I personally am very code agnostic, but I do also admit I am trying to run a business. I think both, and any really, code formats can be a very powerful tool for engaging customers with UX. My concern is usually with the readers and camera qualities that I cannot really control.

      Thanks for sparking a conversation about this and the value propositions between the two.

      @Terence - great points as usual

      -Patrick @qrarts

      Reply
  6. Nick Sharratt Image of Nick Sharratt

    My observations on coping with lossy images and still being scannable were from personal experience testing rather than hard evidence, but I also read the MS research papers and how much they'd put into just that aspect, as well as giving a higher information density than b/w codes. Milage will of course vary.

    Re:anylitics - not everyone runs a website to enable this an not all sites offer it. Eg, a group may wish to Market themselves on facebook and would like to know which media they advertise in gets the most hits - tags could do that and it gives an all in one interace for it.

    Sure, you could do similar by directing a QR code via a similar service, but it's not integrated into a single off the shelf solution.

    Hence my analogy with VHS/Betamax - one may be technically better (tags) but get the marketing wrong (not being open etc) and hence fail.

    Reply
  7. sd12013 Image of sd12013

    From my experience, I see many more QR codes in the U.S. market than I do MS Tags. I think there are a lot of the big companies that don't care what it's going to cost that will get baited into MS's trap and when MS does finally spring the cage shut, the smaller companies already knee deep in a campaign are going to be pissed to find out MS wants to charge them a lot to see their analytics. While it's free, a lot of people and companies are giving it a go. But once MS announces it's pricing, we'll see the pendulum swing back toward standard QR.

    Reply
  8. Jumpscan Image of Jumpscan

    I think the tags are getting more play in magazines because MS is making a concerted effort to reach businesses. Where you'll see QR taking off, is more on the grass roots level. Also, Google and Bit.ly have added QR generators. Some of the big boxes are going with tags, but Best Buy, Target and others are going with QR.

    Reply
  9. Robert Image of Robert

    me, i'm a huge qr supporter. not an anti-ms activist tough. i guess dynamic qrs with stats and so on are way better than any corporation-owned next big thing. especially when they're embedded in a social network-like community. talking about these uqr.me guys that popped out recently. basically it's about redirecting qr urls, but see for yourself http://uqr.me

    Reply
  10. Dean Collins Image of Dean Collins

    wow intelligent comments, nice to find somewhere that people aren't saying "But MsTags are better cause they come in pretty colours".

    my main issue in advising ALL clients to stay away from MsTags are simple (btw elloquantly worded above), One day MS are going to get bored with MsTags and you as a client will be screwed.

    Dont believe they walk away from products.... ask a MS Live Reader that question.

    Cheers,
    Dean Collins
    http://www.Cognation.net/QR

    Reply
    • Terence Eden Image of Terence Eden

      Indeed - it's worth reading the Wikipedia article on Windows Live Barcodes. Microsoft started out with QR codes but, for some reason, abandoned them.

      Abandoning the technology I can understand - but all the servers have been shut off, so users can no longer get analytics or change the content of their codes. Very worrying for the future of MS Tags.

      Reply
  11. Duncan Heeren Image of Duncan Heeren

    After following the tech develop for some time I suspect Microsoft abandoned the QR tech
    because they don't own it. Historically, they hate paying others licensing fees and usually try a work around. Given their deep pockets they are able to saturate the marketplace with their product while the developing companies play catch-up. In almost all cases the original products tend to be superior and as mentioned above Microsoft's business practices also leave you wanting

    Reply
  12. Tosk59 Image of Tosk59

    Kind a propos, just recd e-mail from them that says:

    Dear valued user of Microsoft Tag:

    We have updated our terms of use under the Microsoft Tag Service and Tag Creation API Agreement. These changes are effective immediately and do not require any additional action from you. You may review the new terms of use here: http://tag.microsoft.com/tag-terms-of-use.aspx. Users of the Microsoft Tag API will not need to reapply for a new API key due to these updates.

    Among the changes, we promise to you that certain basic features of the Microsoft Tag service will remain free for as long as we operate the Microsoft Tag service. These basic features are defined in the terms of use, and include the ability to create basic Tags. We will also use commercially reasonable efforts to make these basic features available until at least January 1, 2015, and provide two years prior notice before we terminate the basic features or the entire Microsoft Tag service. Please review the new terms of use to see the important details of these changes.

    Thank you for using Microsoft Tag.

    The Microsoft Tag team

    P.S. I'm a "user" in that I have Tag on my BB Torch (along with ScanLife, QR Code Scanner Pro, Barcode Assistant, and BeeTagg)

    Reply
  13. Dean Collins Image of Dean Collins

    Lol should in post the statement from Denso in the 90's that says QR code royalty payments will NEVER be collected and you can do what you like :)

    When MsTags post the source code, and allow me to run the application from my own servers, allow developers to write their own readers, then wake me up - otherwise.... sorry not interested in being held hostage by a proprietary service from micrososft.

    Reply
  14. Fox Image of Fox

    I myself look forward to getting involved with QR codes starting next year and will have a site qrcodemobi.com(nothing but cpa offers right now). The comments here are most appreciated and I am concentrating my efforts more on how to make the awareness of QR codes excepted more into the mainstream.

    For now I was going to jump all over MS Tags but glad I've read these comments, I guess the jury is still out. So I will be cautious and use the industry standard also, I would hate to have success only to have MS step in like a Google Slap or sandbox.

    Heck they have the insane budget why don't invest more in bringing about more awareness (TV commercials) Guess if they did, then would start applying some type of monthly fee )-; or?

    Seems obvious that if a major recording artist promoted his/her next Cd using these codes it would create a frenzy. In other words one could received tickets to a concert. Only after scanning a code and apply or receive a discount via a secret # embedded within the code. And the number is constantly changing or encrypted somehow as each consumer scans.

    Or answers a question. And make it time sensitive... these are only ideas so don't cut me in half yet.

    Maybe have the code posted on stage behind the band, and have a code for contributions to a worthy cause, where one would receive a limited number of killer t-shirt or iPhone/Android app. Of course the artist would have to be compensated to participate or really be aware that they could be the ones who initiated this movement.

    I lived in Japan 5yrs and it's amazing how it's a no-brainer and qr-codes are widely used for numerous reasons. Japan has some how practically turned them into a way of life and the Japanese appreciate the convenience these codes provide.

    Sadly I left Japan and didn't realize how one day these codes might hit the USA & Europe or I would of researched more. Hope to return soon and find out how & why, it's hard to research without actually being there observing & researching. They are a very secretive bunch of know-it-alls this can't be constructively researched via cpu's, emails or phone calls.

    Per a earlier comment from qr1337. I think Patrick is on to something with those animated codes, that in itself I believe would attract more users or create a more eye catching experience and desire to start scanning.

    If I were a lottery winner, I'd invest and in a years time be sitting with Bill Gates and hob-nobben with the likes of Goggle/Facebook.

    Kudos to everyone here... it's good to see there are some true QR professionals painlessly working to bring this platform to the masses. It will one day become mainstream and you pioneers will definitely reap the benefits and revenue when the market explodes.

    All the Best

    QR code newbie

    Reply

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