Yesterday Microsoft made the not-so-surprising announcement that it would no longer be supporting its Microsoft Tag system. Rest easy, all you Microsoft Tag fanatics out there— the technology will continue to live on in the hands of a company called Scanbuy. But Microsoft’s involvement with it will formally end in two years, on Aug. 19, 2015.
The name may not ring any bells, but chances are you’ve seen the garishly colored boxes dotted here and there on the Web or in magazines. Microsoft Tags are/were the software giant’s response to the QR Code, usually (though not always) built out of impossible-to-miss primary colors (cyan, yellow, and magenta) and specifically designed so that the companies that created them could easily track the types of users who were scanning them. It sounded like a good idea, but the technology never took off, undoubtedly due to competition from QR Code and rank user disinterest.
According to Microsoft’s announcement of the shutdown, Scanbuy is “the largest provider of QR Codes,” so the technology is passing into what seem to be good hands. Some have raised eyebrows over Scanbuy’s ownership—it is backed by Microsoft rival Google—but this is such an insignificant part of Microsoft’s business that it’s difficult to get too worked up over the conspiracy theories.
In an interview with CITEworld, writer Nancy Gohring asked Scanbuy CEO Mike Wehrs why anyone would want a technology that even Microsoft—notorious for making bad bets like this—didn’t even want any more. Wehrs responded that Tag still has plenty of users, and that its proprietary nature was appealing to some big brands: “We don’t have to worry about some random person creating a Microsoft Tag code generator and releasing rogue codes with malicious intent. All the things that QR Codes have as a negative don’t exist with Microsoft Tag.”
That makes sense, but the bigger question is not what happens to Microsoft Tag going forward, but what the future has in store for 2D bar codes of all shapes and sizes. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve scanned a QR Code with my phone, and I’m no slouch in the technology department. It’s just not that big of a hassle to type in a URL or pull up a Twitter account. It arguably requires more effort to find and pull up the scanning app on my phone.
When it comes to businesses looking for ways to reach consumers, both online and offline, QR Codes seem like a distant consideration that is easily left out of the marketing equation. In a 2011 poll, 58.1 percent of students said they were “very unlikely” to scan one, and ComScore found that year that only 6.2 percent of the mobile audience had ever scanned one. The technology does however seem to be somewhat more popular in Europe.
As for business owners, their reticence to adopt QR Codes makes perfect sense. QR Codes and their ilk are typically only useable when affixed to large-scale branding: magazine advertisements, billboards, and messaging affixed in public transportation like buses and subway stations. Why would anyone want to sully a carefully designed visual like a display ad with a large black-and-white square that looks like it crawled out of Minecraft?
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.