I had the good fortune last month to be invited to participate as a guest CIO on ITSM Weekly, a great IT-related podcast with the amusing ongoing tagline, “What happens when a CIO, a Service Desk Manager and an industry junkie chat weekly?!”
Amidst the discussion and banter, Chris Dancy of ITSM Weekly gave me a bit of a ribbing about what he perceived as my all-too-common anti-QR-code rants on Twitter. And yes, I have tweeted more than once with outright skepticism about the usefulness and likely impact of QR codes. Chris’ good-natured needling made me step back and think about why: what exactly makes me so resistant to the notion of QR codes?
And the answer runs deeper than just QR codes per se. It turns out, as I thought about it, that the story surrounding QR codes represents, for the modern CIO or CTO, kind of a horrible blend: the worst aspects of technology advocacy, combined with the worst aspects of marketing. This post is an attempt to explain those broader implications.
For those (probably many) of you who don’t really know what QR codes are, look at the upper right of this post to see an example: they’re a two-dimensional barcode of sorts, typically consisting of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. QR codes can encode all sorts of information: text, a URL, or other data, and they are typically read/decoded by smartphone applications that are readily and freely available on most mobile platforms.
QR code enthusiasts envision people walking up (for example) to the door of a restaurant, using their smartphone to scan the code displayed in the window, and, well, getting any number of potential outcomes on their screen: a menu, a coupon, a URL, a pointer to a video about the place’s history, etc. In fact, in some countries like Japan, QR codes are everywhere, used for these and many other business situations.
From a technical point of view, it’s indeed really cool that this Rorschach-worthy splotch can be instantly converted to text or other information. Depending on the specific format (yes, there are several divergent standards) and on the nature of the content, as many as 4,296 alphanumeric characters can be contained in one of those splotches. That corresponds to roughly 700 words, or almost three typical pages of ordinary text. That’s a lot of information available at a smartphone glance, so to speak.
So what’s my beef with all that? What’s not to like? Two aspects particularly rankle me as an IT executive:
- It smacks of technology for technology’s sake. Most great CIOs I’ve known have spent a lot of their career pushing back against being typecast as a mere technologist; most of them recognized early on that the way one adds value to a company as a technologist is to get deeply steeped in the business ins and outs, especially customer and financial aspects, and to apply technology appropriately, not just because it’s “cool.”
So sure, QR codes are “really cool” technologically. But are the business use cases really there? Will customers, in numbers, actually go the extra mile of seeing that splotch and feeling motivated enough to pull out their phone and scan it? Personally, I’m an early adopter of and avid experimenter with new technologies (especially when they’re free and widely hyped, as is the case here), but I have scanned fewer than ten QR codes ever. For many advocates, I fear that the coolness (and granted, the potential) of the technology is making them overestimate the probable acceptance of that technology by the masses.
- Excessive hype. Aside from applying a basic “sniff test” to the breathless, even giddy posts pertaining to QR codes, I’ve noticed that many such posts and even press releases quote surveys and reports on the supposedly major acceleration in QR code penetration here in the US. (Sample purple prose in one such report: “QR barcode use has suddenly gone ballistic.”)
The surveys themselves, and the reports based on data taken from those surveys, are visibly flawed.
If you dig into these posts and reports, it turns out nearly all the data cited stems from a mere handful of companies (ScanLife, JumpScan, and Mobio Technologies, Inc.), all of whom, wait for it, just happen to market QR-code related products! Can you say “conflict of interest”?
Moreover, the surveys themselves, and the reports based on data taken from those surveys, are visibly flawed, chock-full of statistical and methodological red flags:
- the reports almost invariably feature graphs that lack Y axis labels, or that are labeled (for example) as “no scale given; relative measure only.”
- The reports often combine data for all bar code scans (including UPC (conventional) barcodes, which are of course a far more plausible and prevalent use case, due to the abundant comparison-shopping apps that people use in bookstores etc.), and then use that data to infer QR code usage. One survey evidently asked the general question, “Have you ever used a barcode scanning application?” And the data then obtained from the answers to that general question now leads QR code advocates to conclude (erroneously) that “while QR codes aren’t mainstream yet, they’re past the early adopter phase.”
- There’s seldom an attempt made to take into account one key factor in the increase in barcode scanning: the meteoric rise in smartphone penetration overall. A rising tide lifts all boats, and even if we’re seeing an increase in QR code scanning, that needs to be taken in the context of millions more smartphones being sold per month.
Finally, in a particularly delicious example that Darrell Huff would be amused by, ScanLife shows a graph comparing 1D (conventional) barcode scans with 2D (QR code) scans, favorably to QR codes, of course. Well, read the fine print under that graph: “Note: 2D traffic includes 3rd party apps while 1D traffic is only sourced from the ScanLife app”. Apples are being compared to oranges here, in other words. Vested interest. When data is presented in so obviously skewed a fashion, by people with a clear commercial agenda, one has to wonder whether it’s really all part of a sales job.
And the reports also don’t even begin to address a potential major factor when examining such data at this stage: what percentage of people scanning QR codes are doing so right now simply out of the sheer novelty of it all? As Steve Smith observed, “we are still in the gee-whiz stage of 2D codes”. Will this phenomenon have legs, so to speak?
So let me recap my main concerns about the QR bandwagon:
- Even relatively widespread adoption (which QR codes have yet to see, of course) of a great new technology by technophiles doesn’t guarantee eventual deep penetration to the mass market. That should be obvious to anyone who isn’t running a Linux box for their desktop.
- Will a critical mass of non-technical people (say, those who couldn’t manage to set the time on their VCRs back in the 80s and 90s) really tend to whip out their smartphone and scan QR codes in profusion? Maybe, but right now it’s just a matter of opinion.
- Will there ever be enough “bang for the buck” with QR codes (i.e., investment of time/money versus benefit obtained from using them)? Even as an early adopter, I’ve scanned fewer than 10 QR codes ever, because there was never sufficient payback for my effort. And for the retailer or marketer: will QR codes really pull more people in the door, or is it just another gimmick? Where’s the data? (the real data, that is). Even in museums (one plausible use case mentioned for QR codes), I can envision only the highly motivated museum-goer as likely to indulge in QR code scanning. It’s technology for a very narrow slice of the audience. It may be worth doing for that slice, sure, but let’s not go overboard in our excitement or our investment.
Back in the late 90s, several companies invested millions of dollars promoting what amounts to an earlier version of this scheme: specialized barcodes published in magazine ads, designed to be read by a “CueCat” scanner which they distributed broadly, for free, to people like Radio Shack customers and Wired magazine subscribers. It failed miserably. In December 2009, the popular gadget blog Gizmodo even voted the CueCat the #1 worst invention of the “2000s” decade. Yes, now we have smartphones and don’t need to obtain special equipment, so that gives QR codes an advantage that CueCat didn’t have. But still, it gives me pause that QR codes are being promoted with much the same zeal, and perhaps with similar blinders as to the true practicality of the technology. It’s déjà vu all over again: endless hype, plus technology pursued without solid practical reasons to do so: these are, and deserve to be, twin bugaboos for any technology executive.
And that’s why I express skepticism about QR codes on Twitter.
- Hamilton Chan, “Why QR codes will go mainstream”
- Oliver Williams, “Why isn’t everyone using QR codes?”
- Heidi Cohen, “QR Codes Are Here to Stay [Data]”
- Dan Frommer, “Death To The QR Code”
- Steve Smith, “Down the QR Code rabbit hole”
- Dan Neumann, “RIP: Why We Don’t Need QR Code Campaigns”
- Dan Neumann, “2D Barcodes: You’re Doing it Wrong”
- Veselin Nedeff, “QR Codes Usage Stats for the First Half of 2011”
- Veselin Nedeff, “Global Growth in Mobile Barcode Usage – Q1/2011”
- Veselin Nedeff, “QR Code Scanning Now Mainstream in US Retail”
- Mobio Technologies, Inc., “The Naked Facts: QR Barcode Scanning in 2H-2010”
- Mobio Technologies, Inc., “The Naked Facts: Whiplash Edition. QR Barcode Scanning in Q1-2011”
- Wayne Sutton, “The QR Code Statistics you have been looking for – infographic”
- Heidi Cohen, “QR Codes: 26 MUST-HAVE Facts [Data & Charts]”