Don't Worry, QR Codes Are Not Taking Over the World

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QRCode-Post.jpgAn article in today's edition of USA Today entitled "Why those funny new cellphone bar codes will take over the world" attempts to convince us that, well, those funny new cellphone bar codes will take over the world. But I'm not convinced. The funny codes in question? QR (Quick Response) codes, which were actually created 17 years ago in Japan by a Toyota subsidiary. And they're still nothing more than a gimmick in the United States, used mostly, as far as I can tell, on the pages of special editions of magazines like Entertainment Weekly to allow readers to watch movie trailers while they read the reviews of Owen Gleiberman.

You know them. QR codes look like random smatterings of black and white blocks and they're meant to be scanned quickly by a smartphone or other device that has a QR reader installed. (If you try scanning the generic QR code that I embedded in the post to remind you what these things look like -- you needed reminding since you probably haven't seen them in quite some time, if at all -- and it takes you to an NSFW site, my apologies; I didn't have the patience to test it out.) They act as auto-links, basically. Instead of typing out an address and clicking enter, you can search for a QR reader, install it on your smartphone and, when you come across a QR code, pull out your phone, find and open the reader you previously installed and then wave it over the code until it registers and loads another page. Voila! So simple.

To convince us of the codes impending world domination, Tim Mullaney spoke with one guy, Hamilton Chan, whose job is to sell these things. No conflict of interest there. The founder of Paperlink, a marketing-technology company, Chan believes that "QR codes will be ubiquitous in five years, and the phone will be like a magic wand -- wave it and get things." His argument: "They're codes that can be read very quickly using smartphones," Chan told Mullaney. "My overarching thesis is that before if you wanted information, you would go to a computer, go to Google and search. Now you can get on-the-go hyperlinks, and hyperlinks are moving from computers into the rest of the world."

Chan, whose company "helps clients deploy QR codes in places from nightclubs to manufacturers," makes Googling something sound like a very tedious task. But performing a search is not hard anymore if it ever was. Consider that most of us carry at least one computer around on our person at all times. Who needs to "go to a computer," Mr. Chan? To function properly, the QR code requires a smartphone (or similar device), which is named as such because it is, as far as bar codes -- traditional or modern -- are concerned, a computer. It's smarter than a regular phone. Just not smart enough -- yet -- to realize that it doesn't want to bother with scanning your codes.

Note: Because I'm at home this weekend and not in a hotel, I'm not sure if this piece was in the print edition of the paper or just online. Check for yourself: It was filed away as a "Special for USA Today," presumably because the editors have not yet gotten around to launching their QR supplement, which will sit right between the few remaining classified ads and showtimes for your local theater. Once you have, let me know if you agree. Maybe I'm totally off-base here. Who knows what we'll be doing in five years. This may read as cynical, but I'm an optimist. I'm optimistic that, by 2016, our technology will be far more advanced than a couple of bar codes and a smartphone app.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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