May 26, 2011, 4:45 PM

2-D or not 2-D, that is the question

2-D bar codes are cool—and cool counts in mobile.

Lead Photo

A Microsoft Tag 2-D bar code that, when scanned by a smartphone with the Tag Reader app, leads to a mobile-optimized web page with more information on the 2-D bar code system.

Over the years I have talked with many retailers who have advised in e-commerce not to do something just because it’s cool. That rule does not apply in m-commerce. While desktop Internet users browse and search for products and have a set of expectations that they will get from a retailer all the information they need to make a purchase decision, mobile web and especially mobile app users are more playful and expect more than a utilitarian experience.

Two-dimensional bar codes are starting to get attention in the m-commerce world, and rightly so. A 2-D bar code is a square with a design that can be black and white (in the case of Quick Response, or QR, codes) or color (in the case of Microsoft Tag codes). Smartphone owners with a 2-D bar code reader app (there are numerous to be found in app stores) open the app, hold their camera over the code, and voilà, the code automatically opens a mobile web page containing anything from additional product details to a free music download to a mobile video. Merchants can place 2-D bar codes on product packaging, store shelves, store displays, magazine ads, TV ads, just about anywhere you can think of.

People dig scanning. This was proven over the holidays last year when technology providers like Scanbuy Inc. and Microsoft Corp. reported millions of app downloads and scans via their 2-D systems. Scanning sure beats typing—why type when you can just hold your camera over a code? It’s a cool way to use your smartphone, a technology that personalizes the retail experience by taking the bar code scanner out of the store employees’ hands and putting it in your own. If you’ve never done it, then try it on the 2-D code directly above (you'll need the Microsoft Tag Reader from

2-D bar codes are top of mind for me this week because of three interviews I’ve conducted for various stories. Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., also known as PacSun, just debuted an iPhone app with a built-in QR code scanner. I haven’t seen retailers doing this (some have 1-D bar code, like Universal Product Code, or UPC, scanners inside). And PacSun is playing it cool by connecting scanners to a free music download by an up-and-coming band as well as product videos. The Catholic Company told me it will be using QR codes in its July catalog to link readers to a video of an artisan making statues by hand.

But then I talked with an analyst who made a fair point. “It’s not that hard to go to a mobile site or app and find out about a product without having to go through scanning QR codes,” said Neil Strother, practice director at ABI Research. True. But 2-D bar codes give retailers the power to direct the customer’s experience, sending the customer to where the retailer wants them to go. A customer might go to a mobile site and look up product information but not swipe down the screen where a product video lays in wait. Why make the customer type in information and possibly miss out on the most valuable assets online when she can just hold her smartphone over a code and be instantly connected with great content?

And just as important, typing and browsing is just not as cool as scanning. Scoff if you will, but cool matters. And 2-D bar codes are awfully cool.

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