QR codes filling the void while NFC dawdles

By the time you’ve finished this article, you will see QR codes everywhere. You’ll see them on posters on your way to work, on products you’re about to buy and even on the boxes and devices strewn about your person as we speak. Just take a look at what’s on your desk. They're all around you; not even the dead are safe.

It’s been a creeping advance but those little black and white pattern stickers are all over the place, but has their success come all too late?

The latest round of super smartphones all come with another contactless technology in the shape of the headline-grabbing NFC - a technology that’s managed to remove many of the barriers between the user and any raw information lying in wait in the world around. Much like Bluetooth against the force of Wi-Fi, however, according to Laura Marriott, CEO at NeoMedia, the arrival of something more advanced doesn’t necessarily mean the obsolescence of something else.

“I see QR codes as one of many elements in the AR media toolkit," she says. "I see them as around for years in the pack. It’s nine years since SMS became ubiquitous but it’s still an important tool regardless.”

It’s of little surprise that Marriott would say that - after all, NeoMedia is the global leader in creating and providing QR codes. But there’s more to her case then just history and company propaganda. The fact is, those monochrome patterns - although arguably less sophisticated than an advanced chip-based technology - do have their advantages.

“The QR code is a nice, cost-effective way of getting users to interact with a brand. It doesn’t take up much real estate, so it’s good for print. They’re very fast to generate and easy to use,” says Marriott.

More importantly for advertisers or anyone looking to spread their message in a hurry, they’re also very cheap to produce and require no special technology for users apart from a phone with a camera, which pretty much covers everyone these days. NFC, on the other hand, requires an infrastructure of end points, each containing powered, signal-broadcasting microchips as well as reader devices with the same technology. A lot of the time, that’s just not practical.

“NFC is complementary to QR codes. It’s not as cost-effective but it makes it more suitable for payment than for marketing and advertising,” Marriott explains.

With a company like Visa behind the push for NFC-based, contactless payments controlling a huge roll-out of chipped and specialised point of sale units for the purpose, it’s a perfect match of wireless delivery and specific application. The added expertise, machinery and expense even adds a further layer of security - a facet of paramount importance when it comes to financial transactions.

According to Marriott, there have been trials with QR payments but there are issues with a cumbersome authentication process mid-way through the operation where users would have to log in. Put that hurdle in the way and you may as well stick to chip and pin.

This security issue, in fact, has the potential to cause further problems for QR codes in the wider sense. Their simple creation - often by freeware QR-generator sites - and the ease with which we use them make them susceptible to darker purposes. In bars and toilets you’ll often find a QR code slapped on the wall in some move of guerilla advertising, with little or sometimes nothing at all next to it to indicate just what the code does. You’re only a click away from downloading some file direct to your mobile with everything it contains up for compromise.

In reality, of course, just make sure that your QR reader app isn’t set to automatic download without your permission. QR cyber crime doesn’t seem to be writing the headlines at the moment but if it became a massive method of interaction, there would be a decent opportunity for hackers to go about extracting quite a bit of sensitive and lucrative information.

While it’s not something Marriott has come into contact with, what she has seen in the past are legitimate QR codes hijacked for other purposes but, ultimately, that all comes down to using a reputable QR platform company looking after just where those black and white boxes will take you, rather than trusting in a freeware code creator.

Despite what is really a very small danger at the moment, QR culture has not really kicked off in the UK or many places at all. So, what’s going wrong?

One of the few places where they have penetrated into society’s consciousness is - no prizes for guessing - in Japan. There are entire magazines of just QR code deals for people to scan such as Hot Pepper Pockets which provides page upon page of restaurant deals. Scan the code and you’ll download a voucher for your favourite hangouts with the latest discount offers. By the same token, every advert in print and billboard on the train has them ready for commuters to interact with, but it’s a technology that’s endemic through life there with even your passport stamped with a QR code on entry.

“The Interesting thing in the case of Japan is close collaboration with operators. They got together early on and made a QR standard and that’s why it’s worked so well there,” explains Marriott.

The difference elsewhere is that there’s never been a concerted push from phone manufacturer, mobile service provider or any big consumer-facing brand as part of a campaign.

It’s been the same story with NFC in Japan. All mobiles there are sold with a standard NFC-enabled chip made by Felica and that’s ensured, once again, that the technology and infrastructure for it has been picked up, spread and put into effect much more rapidly by the population. You can make payments with your mobile at huge numbers of retailers and even use it for access to travel, much like an Oyster Card - something that’s only been trialled in the UK up to this point.

Fortunately NFC has had a far greater profile in Europe and America with companies such as Visa, Barclaycard and Google firmly behind it and mobile manufacturers Samsung, HTC and Motorola all proud to claim it as a headline feature at their handset launches.

Interestingly, the glaring exception is the recently announced iPhone 5, curiously devoid of what many presumed it surely must come packed with. The missing NFC feature is a huge blow for the technology infrastructure and culture of use, what with more than 2 million Apple mobiles getting snapped up within 24 hours of pre-order availability. So, expect to see another 12 months as we watch from the sidelines while the Far East continues on its journey of technological enlightenment.

In the mean time, there are things that can be done to help the spread of QR know-how. Most mobile phones in the UK - pretty much all mobile phones, as it goes - do not come with any kind of QR reader pre-installed. You have to download a third-party app first. There are plenty of them but it’s a significant barrier in the hands of the non-tech savvy and quite a bewildering choice when you do go searching in the Google Play store.

“The first step is to pre-install on devices,” advises Marriott. “Sony and AT&T have a reader pre-installed, but, if it could just be a scan button on your desktop, it would remove a huge barrier. I don’t want to say it's cumbersome but its a long process.”

Better still would be an in-built standby of your camera software so that there’d be no need to press any buttons at all or even unlock your smartphone to access what the codes have to offer: just hold up your mobile and it kicks into life.

Until that time, don’t forget about those black and white squares. There’s treasure in those pixels and all it takes is an app and a little curiosity to unlock it.

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