If you have never heard of a QR code, chances are you’ve seen one. Known as “Quick Response” codes, the square-shaped bar codes have been showing up everywhere, including poster advertisements, newspaper ads, business cards, and even utility bills. The concept is simple: Take a picture of a QR code with your smartphone to get more information about a product, business, or whatever else the code’s embedded info is promoting. The recent rise in the US of QR codes, which have been widely used in Japan for years, has been fueled by the increasing popularity of smartphones. Major companies like AT&T, Verizon, Ford, and Pepsi have been jumping on the QR code bandwagon in droves. And companies aren’t the only users. Anybody can go to websites like http://qrcode.kaywa.com to create their own codes to link to blogs or print on business cards.
But hold the (smart) phone. (Please excuse my bad pun.) Until recently, Google widely supported QR codes, using them in its Google Places service to allow people to use their smartphones to find business addresses, URLs, hours of operations, and more. Businesses listed on Places would often put Google-supplied decals printed with QR codes in their windows for customers to scan. Google quietly stopped using the code last month, however, in favor of a new and dynamic technology known as Near Field Communication (NFC). If the technology takes off as Google predicts, NFC may quickly supplant QR codes as advertisement vehicles and send them to the technology graveyard just as fast as they hit US shores.
So what exactly is NFC? Not to be confused with the NFL’s esteemed National Football Conference, NFC is a new type of chip that can be embedded in 2-D items like posters or cards. Similar to QR codes, NFC chips can contain product information and other data. The chips can take the form of tags, stickers, or cards. A person with a NFC-enabled smartphone could wave their phone near a poster with a NFC tag to upload the information embedded in the tag.
What makes NFC tags so appealing to Google (and perhaps to companies currently using QR codes) are the tag’s other potential uses. Friends and family could transfer photos and other files between NFC-enabled phones by touching their phones together. There is also talk of using the technology to allow consumers to purchase products at retail stores using their smartphones. The phone’s NFC technology would simply store the shopper’s credit card information. According to Business Insider and technology experts, NFC could also be used in personal ID’s or driver’s licenses, keys, and to exchange phone numbers and other contact information between mobile phones with minimal typing.
In addition to Google, mobile phone manufacturers, credit card companies, and payment processors have recently thrown their hats into the NFC ring. A recent Techcrunch article noted that “Google is already supporting NFC chips in Android phones such as the Nexus S and is expected to roll out tests of wave-and-pay systems at stores in New York City and San Francisco in partnership with VeriFone Systemsand ViVOtech.” (Samsung and Google are co-developing Nexus S.) The article also cited Google’s dismissal of QR codes, as well as its new membership in the non-profit industry association NFC Forum, as an indicator of Google’s shift in focus to NFC technologies. Apparently Google has already started sending out decals with NFC tags to some of its Google Places businesses.
In light of all of NFC’s potential uses, it’s no wonder that Google, often ahead of the technology curve, has shifted away from QR codes just as other companies are starting to use them. Some industry experts predict that Google’s shift will render QR codes obsolete, while others see a future for the codes, especially in the retail sector.
Personally, I see the use of QR codes declining. Because of easy, free access, bloggers and business card owners could be the last QR code holdouts. But as more and more people buy NFC-enabled smartphones, NFC could very well become the preferred embedded digital advertisement tool for marketers. And with all of its other uses, Near Field Communication could also become a household name, especially as companies invest in the technology. I’m not convinced the same can be said of QR codes, since many people that I know have never heard of the name.