There was a flurry of stories recently sounding the death knell for QR codes because Google has dropped support for them within Google Places. I’ve written a bit lately about QR codes and their application to museums and sites for both interpretation and wayfinding, and was a little surprised to hear the dire predictions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think reports of QR’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.
As influential tech columnist John Gruber is fond of pointing out, Google is first and foremost an advertising company, and as such, their product is you. “You” in the sense of information about you, your location, your preferences and your interests. Everything that Google does makes much more sense when viewed through that lens.
Google Places is Google’s two year old initiative to gain a toehold in the world of bricks and mortar commerce, by offering greater search exposure to merchants, while harvesting information about shoppers and their purchases through ratings and recommendations. Until a few days ago, Google was relying on QR codes supplied to merchants and displayed by them on signage and advertisements, which would be linked to the Places accounts of both merchants and consumers. I think it’s dangerous to speculate on the basis of Google’s decision to drop QR codes about whether QR codes were a success with users, whether enough people knew what they were or found them useful. Google has lots of data on that, no doubt, but they’re unlikely to be sharing it. What I think we can conclude is that Google saw bigger potential profit for Google in going a different way.
Although I don’t believe Google ever explicitly said it, it’s no secret that their different way is “near field communication” (NFC), the new-ish wireless e-commerce technology that promises to be disruptive in the payments market. Banks and credit card companies are working furiously at jockeying for a piece of the action, and it appears certain that Google wants a seat at the table too. Google, and the other usual suspects would love to have a taste of every NFC transaction, and for Google, that’s something that QR codes just weren’t going to deliver.
Does that mean the QR code is dead? Far from it. QR codes still have value as a way of inexpensively directing users to web content on mobile phones when they are out and about. There are many, many more phones capable of scanning QR codes right now than there will be phones equipped to deal with NFC over the next several years. Don’t forget, the same phones that will be NFC enabled in the future will still be fully capable of reading QR codes as well. The cost of implementing NFC solutions is somewhat of an unknown at the moment, but QR codes can be implemented right now for the cost of a simple mobile-friendly website and a printed QR code generated with free software. QR codes may not meet Google’s objectives for Google Places, but they will certainly be worthy of serious consideration for a wide range of wayfinding and interpretation projects for some time to come.
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