I can't think of anyone who has had a better year than the QR code. What a comeback.
— Grace Mulvey (@GraceMulvey1) December 17, 2021
Search back through this blog and you'll find dozens of posts about QR codes. Back in the day, I was a freelance "Mobile Internet" consultant. I'd rock up to companies and say "you know you can get the Web on your phone, right? It's going to be the next big thing!" And people would pay me handsomely for that advice.
I'd also talk about apps - "You don't need one, but if you're going to develop one, here's what you need to know." It was like pushing on an open door.
My final pitch was always - "Hey, QR codes are pretty nifty! Would you like some help with them?"
Silence. Followed by a swift refusal.
The arguments against QR codes back then fell into a few main categories
- They're ugly (true, but they can be made prettier)
- People don't scan them (false, with lots of data)
- Hackers might do something bad (unlikely, and easily defended against)
But, the main objection was that QR codes could never succeed because no one could make money from them!
This was a time when Microsoft was pushing its paid-for MS Tag product - which only lasted about 3 years before it was shut down. They were trying to capture the mobile code scanning market, and failed.
Although lots of people were building scanners, there were very few companies pushing QR codes because they couldn't see a way to make money from them. Sure, there were a few companies which would sell you a short URL with analytics baked in. But there was no "moat". Anyone could build a slightly cheaper competitor. And businesses could bypass those companies easily. With no commercial driver, there was no pressure to promote the use of QR. So - in the UK at least - QR codes bumbled along, occasionally appearing on energy bills, physical products, and informational posters.
The "problem" is that QR codes are "boring infrastructure". That's what makes them magical - they're both libre and gratis.
Libre because QR codes are free to create - there are no royalties, 3rd parties, nor approval processes.
Gratis because QR codes are too cheap. They only cost black ink. They are so cheap, you can stick them on a sachets of salt and pepper!
Try doing that with an NFC!
I was told that without organisations trying to drive adoption - whether to gain a monopoly or to drive people to walled-gardens - QR codes would never gain popularity.
I think that was true - up to a point. QR codes were always more popular with people than they were with advertisers.
But, in the end, it is somewhat gratifying being proven right. Mostly. It is great seeing restaurants using QR codes on their daily menus. And most product manuals, adverts, and fliers now contain a code. We're not there with payments - not in the same way China is. I kinda wish I'd finished writing my book about QR codes in 2014!
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to help the NHS with their QR check-in for COVID security. Which was nice.
I just wish it didn't take a pandemic to make QR codes this popular!
Me in 2007: 🤔 Wouldn't it be neat if QR Codes were everywhere?
Me in 2020: 😢 Wouldn't it be neat if we didn't need QR Codes at the entrance to every shop. https://t.co/EJC6qSwB0j
— Terence Eden (@edent) December 29, 2020