6 QR Code Alternatives Disproved (Including NFC, Microsoft Tag, and AR)

Time after time I hear critics talking about QR codes and why they're going to be phased out by newer technology. Newer technologies include image recognition,  augmented reality, or Near Field Communication. Well, they're wrong. QR codes aren't going to die because they have characteristics that no alternatives have. It's only a matter of time before QR codes become the standard.  

Before I begin discussing the "QR code alternatives," I want to say, QR codes have no competition. None of these alternatives posses all of the characteristics of a QR code. 

Ok, let's begin.

StarStar Numbers

A StarStar number is a number that looks like this: **YOURBRAND. You call (not text) this number, and you'll instantly receive a text message with more info (possibly a link). 

For example, you can dial **GSCOOKIES, hear a message about supporting Girl Scout cookies, and then receive a text message to download their app in the app store. 

Cool? Yes. QR code alternative? No. 

Why? It's proprietary and thus won't spread as fast as QR codes will. 


JagTag is another barcode format similar to a QR code but it works by sending a picture text message, a tweet, or an e-mail to the JagTag server. When it receives it, it decodes the barcode and then sends it back to you. The idea behind JagTag is that it allows non-smartphone users to engage in ways similar to a QR code. Here's their official video below:

Although I think this is cool, I question the effectiveness. Smartphone owners bought smartphones to engage and interact with their device in new ways. Feature phone users haven't made the jump due to cost, or need, and I wonder if even seeing a JagTag would prompt them to text it in. It might work in some circles, but I doubt it. Did I mention feature phones are predicted to become a minority by the end of this year?

The problem with JagTag? It's proprietary. 

They're beginning to do more things with QR codes, which is cool, but I question how they compete with Microsoft Tag and the dozens of other QR code resources out there. 

Microsoft Tag

Microsoft Tag is probably the most similar to a QR code. Scan it with your phone and you get taken to more information. Here's an official video from Microsoft:

Microsoft Tag has not one but two problems. It's proprietary and it lacks visual consistency

Since its proprietary, there is only one reader that works with Microsoft Tag. It's the official Microsoft Tag reader. What does this do? It limits the growth of the Microsoft Tag. I've actually heard of people familiar with QR codes who try to scan a Microsoft Tag with a QR code reader. Guess what happens? It doesn't work and they move on with their day. This negative experience is the result of greater awareness for QR codes than Microsoft Tag.

The second problem is visual consistency. QR codes can be altered up to 30% from their original code, which mostly makes them still recognizable. Microsoft Tags, on the other hand, can be altered beyond recognition. I've seen Microsoft Tags in magazines and I had absolutely no idea what it was until I read the fine print. The fact that companies go out of their way to custom brand their Tag negatively affects consumers ability to easily recognize them.

For an in-depth review on QR codes, Microsoft Tag, and JagTag compared, read this

Image Recognition

Image recognition is the same as a visual search. For instance, when you go to Google, you type in words to search. With Google Goggles, however, you open up the app on your smartphone, point it at to take a photo, and it does a Google search based off that photo. So you can point it at a ketchup bottle, and it'll show you a Google search and include Heinz ketchup at the top (if that is the ketchup you scanned). Check out Google's video explanation:

Cool? Yes. Replacement for QR codes? No.

What's the difference? The visual element. 

Think about it. Is awareness for new technology going to build faster for something that requires reading instructions on what to do (image recognition), or something like QR Codes which calls people to question what they are, and possibly do further research (if instructions aren't already provided)? 

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is the combination of digital data overlayed with the real world. Imagine holding up your phone's camera and seeing a live view of what the camera was seeing (as if you were taking a photo). Then imagine live digital data overlayed with that. An app called Layar does this, and it has several different layers to overlay on top of the real world. It's able to use image recognition, GPS coordinates, and more.

For instance, you could hold up your camera phone and point it in different directions and view nearby restaurants that are on Yelp. Or maybe you want to view what something looked like 100 years ago. Check out the video below to see for yourself.

Again, is this cool? Yes, it's absolutely amazing. Is it a replacement for QR codes? No. 

What's missing? Again, the visual element. 

Near Field Communication (NFC)

A while back I wrote about what you need to know about Near Field Communication, or NFC. In short, NFC allows for a transaction between two devices (a phone and an NFC chip) by no more than a few centimeters. Although Nokia has been behind with innovating in the mobile space, they did put out this video on NFC that shows you what can be done:

Aside from phone-to-phone transactions, this can also be used for:

  • Mobile ticketing in public transportation
  • Mobile payments where your phone acts like your credit card (bump to pay)
  • Unlocking a hotel room door

Is NFC super cool with dozens (or hundreds) of possibilities and practical applications? Yes.

Is it a replacement for QR codes? No.

Why? It lacks two things: print and the visual element. 

The print point here is a big factor. What does this mean, exactly? It means NFC chips are physical pieces of hardware and cannot easily be printed. Sure, they might be cheap, and they might be easy to purchase, but they're not on print. Things like flyers and magazines ads don't make sense to use NFC. You also can't use an NFC chip on a website like you can with a QR code (yes, there are some valid reasons to use QR codes on a website). Additionally, print will be cheaper than purchasing something. Did I mention no wait time? You want something to work, go create a QR code and print it. 

The visual element is also important. QR codes have this visual element. You see them and if the call-to-action is strong enough, you scan (or curiosity wins). As awareness grows, more will be conditioned to see a QR code and immediately know what to do with it. Since they're visual, we can spot them from far away, or up close, depending on how large it is. There is no guesswork. With an NFC chip, it requires text that someone has to read to know what to do. 

Will NFC cannibalize some QR code uses? Yes. For the most part, will QR codes and NFC thrive together? Yes.


QR Codes Have 3 Main Characteristics Nothing Else Has

They are printed.

This cannot be underestimated. We encounter print in our lives every day. There is something to be said about its physical nature. Whether it's something you can touch, like a magazine, or a huge poster on a billboard display in downtown New York. 

They are open.

This is key. They're open, free nature means anyone can implement them into their platforms, like Goo.gl and Bit.ly did. That means we're going to have dozens of platforms with different purposes, from marketing to inventory. The possibilities and room for creativity are endless. This open nature will be the main catalyst in awareness building.

They are visual.

Not only are they visual, but they contain visual consistency. There is something to be said about visual objects in our world. Each one, be it a QR code or logo, means something different to us. Positive or negative experiences will come to mind, or the visual element will simply be the driving force to a conditioned action. This goes beyond the technology and into the study of psychology and human behavior. 


QR Codes Are Relatively New And Not For Everything

As with any new technology, first attempts will be that: first attempts. We must only hope that in time, we learn from our mistakes and begin to implement QR codes in more practical ways.

Social media had the same problem. It came out and many saw it as a means to blast out information. It's simply another channel, as with QR codes, that require a strategy.

Yes, some of these technologies above have their place, and they have a purpose. But nothing by itself is the answer to everything and relevant to every audience and campaign. Haters will always be haters. What is important is those making an attempt at this new tech and taking a risk to differentiate themselves among competition and define the case study of tomorrow.

Agree? Disagree? Hit me in the comments! I'm curious on your experience and perspective.