At CES this year, Microsoft has announce the beta availability of Microsoft Tag. As pointed out elsewhere, the idea isn’t completely new: we have QR Code and Datamatrix. The use Microsoft is pushing is slightly different, however; it fits more in the space that the CueCat tried to cover back in 2000. The idea that Digital Convergence (maker of CueCat) had with their product was great, just ill-timed.
Noting the prevalence of highly-powerful smartphones with built-in cameras and internet access, I’m a bit surprised that a solution has not yet revealed itself. If the CueCat maker were still around today, maybe they would have taken a good shot at it.
So what makes the HCCB a killer app? The barcode itself need not contain the entirety of the information. In fact, it acts much like a URL-shrinking service (i.e. TinyURL). The barcode stores only an identifier, which is then resolved on Microsoft’s servers. Currently, you can use an HCCB to store a URL, free text, vCard, or phone number.
The initial implementations are obvious, but what else can we accomplish with this variety of options? How about using the URL method to link to a Google Maps address. If you’re on an iPhone, the Maps application will automatically launch after resolving the address. Let’s try:
Okay, how about the Free Text tag type? Snap the following picture, and get a simple message:
I can already seeing this turn into a game of sorts: Think Multi-cache Geocaching or a type of scavenger hunt where each tag is a Free Text type, which acts as a clue to the next tag.
The use of vCard is fairly limited, but it can solve a problem facing those wanting to swap contact details. If you store the tag for your vCard on a website, business card, or hopefully your phone address book, swapping details is deadly simple with a couple of camera pictures. Here’s an example of a vCard tag:
Lastly, and probably my least favorite, is the dialer option. Why my least favorite? I don’t see any particular advantage by encoding the information. It takes me longer to take the picture and resolve the tag then to type in the raw digits. One might think that using the tag will obscure the number, but once decoded, your phone begins to dial and all is revealed. The only case where this may not be true is through the use of a password on the tag, which will be discussed below.
In fact, the tags have several features which are quite useful. Probably the foremost is the number of platforms the decoding application is available on. Currently, Windows Mobile, J2ME, iPhone, Blackberry, and Symbian S60 phones are supported. That probably covers the vast majority of smartphones in use today. As mobile phone manufacturers move out of the software business, leaving that to the likes of Windows Mobile and Andriod, I expect the percentage of phone to be capable of reading tags to increase greatly.
We’ve talked about the password feature. While a nice idea, to ultimately make it worthwhile, the password should not appear next to the HCCB – but let’s be honest, people have terrible memories; maybe a clue could be provided. For example, provide the aforementioned HCCB linking to a map of the party, but also provide the password hint, “Password: First name of party host”. Also, I can imagine this being integrated into the games that might crop up around this.
Start Date & End Date
Most people creating tags for lookup purposes are going to default to an active time of Now through Forever. Especially in the case of a particular event, like the party example, the end date could (and probably should) be set so the information is essentially “destroyed” at the correct epoch.
Bookmarking a tag isn’t a feature of the tag itself, so much as the application. Fortunately Microsoft has provided this feature in their application, and it’s appreciated. Want to look up the menu to a restaurant, but are on the subway with no signal? Just store the tag for later and recall it when you can.
I think the idea and implementation Microsoft has is fantastic. However, there remains a single problem with the tag system: Microsoft. They are the single key holder to the tag format and resolution servers. And it’s no secret that they reserve the right to begin charging for tags. Currently, the Microsoft Tag FAQ indicates that scanning and creating tags for personal use is free. Publishers are an entirely different matter, and may be required to pay for tags in the future.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I believe we’re finally at the right time for a tagging system just as Microsoft has introduced. One of the changes I would like to see is the introduction of an open (source) format and way to resolve the single keyholder issue. The other major issue is support for actual data encoding rather than identifier lookup. In other words, have the option of acting more like QR Code for offline data lookup. Based on current tag types, use would likely be limited to Free Text and Dialer.
Overall, the system is great. I tried each tag type, testing both on my monitor and a printed copy, and things works flawlessly as long as you follow the simple directions. I’m very happy with the implementation and would love to see something like this flourish.