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Summary:

Startups in the long-simmering QR code market are hoping that the change in season, along with what they say is a “critical mass” of smart phones, will finally bring QR codes, barcodes that lead to URLs or information when scanned, into the mainstream.

QR code

Summer is on its way in North America. The days are getting longer, the weather’s warming up, and people are spending time outside. And nowadays, most of those people have a cellphone handy.

Startups in the long-simmering QR code market are hoping that the change in season, along with what they say is a “critical mass” of smart phones, will finally bring QR codes, barcodes that lead to URLs or information when scanned, into the mainstream. The idea is that when more people are out and about, the more likely it is that they’ll interact with QR codes on things like movie and concert promotion posters. And at least two QR code startups are in the process of closing on fresh rounds of funding to make sure they can seize what they think is a major opportunity to bring QR awareness to the masses. But are QR codes really a seasonal thing?

Los Angeles-based startup ShareSquare makes QR codes that lead to customized HTML5-based web applications. The majority of the company’s clients are in the entertainment industry, from independent musicians to large movie studios, and use ShareSquare’s QR codes on promotional materials. ShareSquare launched to the public in March after proving popular at the South by Southwest conference, CEO Matthias Galica said in an interview this week.

Galica says his company is quickly closing on about $1.5 million in funding to ensure that it can capitalize on what he says is a crucial time for the QR space. “Most of these QR placements are out of home, and [in the summer] people have the opportunity to interact with them,” Galica said, noting that the funds will be used to double the size of ShareSquare’s developer team. “We’re seeing the market really accelerate.” Summer is a huge time for concerts and big movies, so maybe he has a point.

Also currently in funding talks is Paperlinks, a Los Angeles-based startup. Paperlinks sells stationery products, like wedding invitations and business cards, which include QR codes linking back to a customized site. Paperlinks CEO Hamilton Chan told me in an interview this week he’s in the process of securing an undisclosed amount of venture capital to help fuel his company’s projected growth. “We want to grow very aggressively,” Chan said. “The time is right for QR codes.”

It bears mentioning, however, that not everyone is so bullish about QR technology’s current potential. In late March, Google quietly shut down the QR code initiative it debuted for its Places product in 2009 . The word is, Google ditched QR to focus on developing near field communications (NFC) technology, which goes beyond offering more information about products. With NFC, people could use their mobile phones to buy things.

It could well be that both QR and NFC have widespread adoption, but in a world of ever-increasing mobile technology, there may not be enough room on the average consumer’s radar for two features that are so similar. That may be the real reason why QR companies see this summer as a now-or-never moment: They’re hoping QR will be the first to grab a place in the sun, and in consumer’s minds, ahead of NFC.

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  1. Ted-san Inoue Sunday, May 8, 2011

    I think both QR codes and NFC have their use. Every smartphone today has a camera, so QR codes can be used for quick info about a product or place by anybody while NFC is currently only available on a tiny percentage of phones.
    In addition, anybody can print QR codes, allowing them to be ubiquitous. NFC requires special hardware smart-signs, so they’re likely to have a much slower uptake.
    Depending on the final range of the NFC systems, they may or may not be appropriate for Merchant window signs. Who wants to wave their phone at the window and look stupid? I’d rather take a picture and get the info.

    1. Great points. I think these differentiators should make NFC suitable for transactions (required to be near) and where the codes may not be visible. QR Codes seem more useful for a wider spectrum of use cases and would probably spread faster due to easier creation & distribution.

      QR Codes are also less intrusive and require a voluntary action on part of the reader (point your camera) whereas there is a risk that some would try to push for increase of NFC range and spam.

      I do not get why Google dropped QR Codes and went to NFC for Google Places. NFC helps in ensuring that the person is really at the place but this could have been mitigated technologically.

  2. I think QR codes are here to stay. Sure, trendy will happen first, but this will quickly give way to utility. In a connected world, every product and service now comes with its own marketing packet just a scan away, with the benefit of being paperless. I suspect this will actually increase the shelf life of marketing materials; people may be less likely to delete a PDF from their smart device than toss an unread data sheet into the recycle bin when they get home.

    1. totally agree. and it’s not just about marketing, but life-tagging in general.

    2. if a QR code scan is automatically linked with a twitter or facebook account, there wouldn’t even be a need to delete.

  3. I read a while ago (don’t remember where) that the ‘QR code’ was dead!

  4. I believe the technology was invented by united parcel service 15-20 years ago to track packages. It was an upgrade to the old bar code sticker. I never would’ve imagined it being used in this way. Seems to me it is a stopgap measure and only temporary. It shouldn’t be too many more years before you can take a picture of something(without a QR code) and get everything you need to know about it via internet links.

  5. Nice post! NFC adoption will need few years to catch on (1/5 phones in 2014 I read somewhere). QR Code is useful is so many scenarios they will definitely stay around even if USA summer won’t be so HOT. Why this summer is so important or is just this summer in USA and how to rate this if get to hot. QR Code for lemonade – http://eppic.biz/2010/12/17/buzz-and-the-qr-code-for-liml-lessons-in-making-lemonade/.

  6. Marshall Cypress Sunday, May 8, 2011

    Anyone ever hear of the que cat?

    1. I had one of those. An idea that was stillborn, if I remember correctly.

      An advantage of the QR code today is you aren’t leashed to your desktop computer…

    2. I think that Que Cat’s problem was that it was tied to a specific service.. though the device was capable of scanning any barcode, the saftware only linked you to their own sponsors. I got way more use out of it after people figured out how to decode the encrypted scanned data and used it as a free general purpose barcode reader.

    3. Genius! The Que Cat was a joke and so are QR Codes. Sure they’re fund for the tech guy to mess around with, but no one is ever going to use these in any volume … except maybe as a replacement for bar codes in at the grocery store.

  7. With QR codes, there is a ton of untapped potential and a lot of growth that could be made.

    The main drawback behind these is that QR-codes can easily link to malicious websites that can either steal private data or leave malware behind. Most URLs will be shortened, making them harder to identify.

  8. You make no mention of the fact that qr codes are fairly old news in japan. even the regular cell phones here have built in qr readers. they are super handy even McDonald’s uses them on their cups and wrappers to tell you nutritional info, also my own cell phone has a personal qr that i can use to distribute my contact information with ease. I would very much like to see this take off in North America.

  9. Gerald Theis Monday, May 9, 2011

    We are the first to have embedded QR technology in our mobile health technology solution. Visualize yourself in a medical emergency, either conscious or unconscious with your smart phone app that allows the first responder to use their QR code reader to scan your vital medical data onto their smart phone…. better yet, the data can then be securely transmitted to the emergency room before you arrive. Yes, QR technology will save lives and money. Data at point of care or before point of care will avoid unnecessary deaths due to medical errors and diagnostic testing.

    1. So people will have QR codes tattooed on their foreheads? How exactly will an EMT find a personal QR code?

  10. Clément Delangue Monday, May 9, 2011

    Thanks for the insights on QR codes and NFC.

    I would like to know where you would locate image-recognition based scanning (like Google Goggles and Moodstocks Notes) relatively to these technologies. Could they replace QR codes in the near future or could they be used in a total different way?

    Cheers,

    1. That’s a great point, Clément. Just this past weekend I noticed a two-page ad in the New Yorker with image-recognition based scanning for Google Goggles. Definitely something to look into.

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