It takes a lot of imagination to turn the concept of barcodes into something sexy. Yet they are the nearest thing on the Internet to a revolution that hasn’t happened. We are so used to thinking of those ubiquitous static barcodes that appear on everything from your favorite newspaper to a can of baked beans that we haven’t cottoned on to the potential of the new generation of two-dimensional (2D) “dynamic” codes.
They can turn any space on which they appear — a tree, an advertisement or photo in a magazine — into a direct link to the Web. Once the software is loaded on to your cellphone, the phone can read the 3,000 or so squares on the barcode and take you straight to a Web site. The quickest way to grasp this is to type a URL into a free barcode generator such as quikqr.com or snappr.net. You can put your own photo in the code if you want — they are reckoned to have 30 percent to 40 percent design flexibility so can be played around with a bit. The barcode created can then be placed on anything from a business card to an advertisement to provide a direct link to a Web site.
While businesses have been slow to move into this fascinating space, creative people have been showing the way. Artist Scott Blake has used Photoshop for nearly a decade to make innovative barcode art. Flickr.com has hundreds of examples and there is a street game in Spain where participants drop out when a rival snaps the barcode on their T-shirts. For other uses see bit.ly/barcode3.
As part of Audi’s centenary celebrations, some bright spark gathered 130 staff from its Japanese subsidiary, each with a placard, to produce a QR (quick response) code (the standard that has gone ballistic in Japan) of 159m², claimed to be the biggest in the world. Once soccer fans cotton on to this we may see them producing giant barcodes in the stands that can be read by phones at home.
Why have barcodes taken off in Japan? It is partly the fax machine syndrome. One is useless; ubiquity is nirvana. Japan had everything going for it — they were early adopters of high-quality smartphones with Web access and they agreed on a freely available standard, QR. And the software was mainly pre-loaded into the phones so there was no need for any downloading.
Could it happen here? There are definite signs of change, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, even though Nokia, the world’s biggest phone manufacturer, seems curiously to be backing away from pre-loading the software in its phones. It is not in the new N86, Nokia’s most powerful cameraphone.
Once again the iPhone is leading the way by making it easy to access the Web from a cellphone, especially through its treasure trove of apps (that hardly anyone mentioned when it launched). There are various downloadable barcode apps on the iPhone for consumers. But developers may find that barcodes left in public places (from posters to T-shirts) could provide a direct route to selling their apps rather than being lost among the thousands of others in the App Store.
Barcodes are something of a marketer’s dream. This is not only because cellphones, unlike the Web, are a mecca for micropayments, but also because, as Michael Bhaskar, co-founder of Quik Communications, has pointed out, this is “pull” marketing that gets people to come to you directly, rather than “push” — using a scattergun and hoping something will stick.