Secret Codes

When, if ever, will mobile barcodes take off in a big way? It’s a question that enthusiasts of the technology have been asking themselves for a long time. Indeed in our debut print edition, published in February – catch it online here – you could sense the frustration felt by one such enthusiast, Howard Furr-Barton, when he said: “QR Codes have not emerged because of the incompetence of the majority of marketing directors, who don’t see a fabulous asset when it’s staring them in the face.”

Yesterday, I met with Iain McCready, CEO of NeoMedia Technologies, one of the leading exponents of mobile barcodes. He argued that things are starting to happen. Last year, it began licensing its technology to other companies. So far, it has signed up four, including two competitors, Scanbuy and Mobiletag, and one more complementary firm. Neustar. It has also licensed the technology to US mobile agency Renu, and is set to announce two Scandinavian agency licensees later today. 

Last year, McCready told me, over 200 campaigns were executed using NeoMedia technology, plus 80 more in the first quarter of 2010. These figures surprised me. If there are this many mobile barcode campaigns running, the people running are not making much noise about them. Why the secrecy?

There are several reasons for the acceleration in mobile barcode deployments, he told me. Firstly, there have been advances on the standardization front, with trade bodies such as the GSM Association and the OMA (Open Mobile Alliance) agreeing on the use of one of three mobile barcode types, QR, Data Matrix and Astec, though there are still proprietary codes out there, and some might argue that even three looks like two too many.

Secondly, the apps phenomenon means that the issue of not having a barcode reader on your phone is much less of an issue than it was a couple of years ago. Added to this, NeoMedia has convinced one handset maker, Sony Ericsson, to pre-install its barcode reader on all new handsets.

McCready conceded that there are still issues to be addressed around data costs and education. On data costs, he told me he’s in favour of the model used in Austria, where the advertiser pays for the costs of the data session initiated when a mobile barcode is scanned. On education, he told me: “I’d like to be in a position where I could show a mobile barcode to anyone in this café, and they would know what it was, but I know we’re not there yet.”

This education process will happen, he believes, as big brands, both offline, in the shape of FMCG companies using 2D barcodes on packaging, and online in the shape of web giants like Facebook and Google, start to deploy mobile barcodes, and consumers get used to interacting with them.

“I believe that by the end of 2010, first quarter of 2011, we will be seeing transaction volumes; it was always going to take that long,” he concluded.
No doubt some will argue that it might take a good while longer than that. But this is a technology that has the potential to tip if it catches on in the right circles, and the viral effect of social media takes hold. It hasn’t happened yet, outside of Japan at least, but it would take a brave man to say it won’t.

David Murphy