Print & Mobile Phones: QR Codes, NFC Square Off
And, in this corner...before QR (quick response) codes and NFC (near field communications) officially square off; the masses have already dubbed NFC “The QR Killer.” Google instigated the matter in March 2011 when it announced it no longer would be supporting QR codes in Google Places and would be using NFC instead. Since then, the hype has escalated with commentary in forums, blogs and the like with headlines such as “Goodbye QR” and “QR Rest in Peace.”
In reality, this is a fight neither side asked for—it has been conjured in the minds of many due to fear, which is instilled when a large corporation like Google merely mentions it is progressing in another direction. Neither QR nor NFC is fully prepared to fight the other just yet and they most likely will become collaborators rather than adversaries.
Each technology is a type of mobile trigger—both QR codes and NFC tags are programmed to deliver specific content, such as directing a user to a landing page, playing a video or providing a means for mobile payment. However, the method by which the information is programmed is uniquely different between the two. One is printed with ink; the other is a printed circuit.
QR codes and other 2D scan codes are two- dimensional barcodes. Using a (free) QR generator, binary information is encoded, resulting in the arrangement of black-and-white squares. The codes can be printed on paper or other printable objects. To trigger the event, the user launches an app, takes a picture of the QR code and the software app decodes the information.
NFC requires communication between two computer chips—an initiator and a receiver. The receiver chip has data written to it, and it is typically applied to the back of a sticker. The initiator chip in a smart phone, or other device, generates an active NFC field. If your phone is embedded with an NFC chip, all you have to do is wave your phone over an NFC tag or sticker to trigger an event.
Currently, the primary differences in how QR codes and NFC match up are manufacturing, cost, capabilities and public perception. Aside from the technical aspects and logic behind a QR code campaign, QR code generators are quite accessible and free. There are hundreds of free QR code generators in the public domain that anyone can use. These codes can easily be copied or saved to your computer and incorporated into some sort of print collateral.
Programming NFC tags is currently not as commonplace. Anyone who buys an NFC-enabled mobile device can create NFC tags—the problem is the availability of smart phones that currently support NFC. You can purchase turnkey solutions from Nokia, Tagstand, et al., which are pre-programmed (the most basic programming resolves to a URL). Or, as more NFC phones become available, you will be able to program your own with any NFC device, some tags and a tag-writer app.
The odds are you already have a computer, access to the Internet and a means to produce print collateral. In which case, creating QR codes will add only a nominal cost or will be free. Similarly, the odds also are you do not have an NFC- capable smart phone, a tag-writer app or a supply of tags. At a minimum, you will need to purchase some tags, and you will most likely need to pay someone to program them for you. The cost is roughly 1-2 cents per tag, but is also dependent on quantity, memory size and complexity.
There are emerging companies and platforms coming weekly to the NFC market. NFC tags continue to become cheaper and easier to create. Advancements are occurring at such a rapid pace that much of this will change (for the better) shortly. Until there's a massive shift in the way the chips are produced, NFC is cost-prohibitive because a person can generate a QR code for free online, and print it on just about anything.
The Tale of the Tape
In terms of how QR codes and NFC compare; each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Here's how they measure up:
• Experience: QR codes have been around since 1994. NFC has been in existence since 2004—however, it is a spinoff of RFID, which was established in the 1970s. Both are more prevalent in Japan and are very new to the U.S., although QR codes have a head start.
• Reach: QR codes are winning ground, while NFC is in its early stages. NFC hardware is not yet readily available, and the current infrastructure to support it is demographically sparse. QR codes are easy to create, easily distributable and recognizable.
• Versatility: NFC tags scan very reliably and quickly, and do not need to be within a line of sight. However, they are limited to a very close range (the initiator must be within
• Requirements: NFC requires an initiator (smart phone or other device that generates an active NFC field), a receiver target with an embedded NFC chip and software to process the data. QR codes require a camera to capture the code and software to decode it.
• Strengths: NFC's strengths lie in mobile payments, location-based navigation and POS (point-of-sale), and will replace QR codes in many of these cases. However, when it comes to print collateral, QR codes are widespread, affordable and cost little or nothing to create.
• Intangibles: Before QR codes ever became established in the United States, they fell from people's favor. (Although, I believe this was due more to poor underlying marketing strategies, and not the technology.) Because of this and also due to Google's support of it, NFC seems to be the fan favorite.
The willingness to throw these two technologies into the ring has more to do with the public's discontent due to a poor perception of QR codes than anything. QR codes have fallen from favor because of poor construction, misuse and inadequate marketing campaigns.
On the flip side, NFC is not fully prepared to challenge QR codes. Very few people currently have an NFC-equipped phone. (In 2008, Jupiter Research predicted that up to 700 million NFC-enabled mobile phones will be sold in 2013.) Other challenges such as cost reduction and security must be sorted, and will—in time.
Eric Weymueller, co-founder of contentAI studios in Portland, OR, believes bridging end users from the real world to any mobile application needs to be intuitive and simple. The team at contentAI had the benefit of using Google’s “Places” NFC test campaign last December.
Weymueller says it was fascinating to observe the ease at which an NFC engagement occurs compared to a QR code. “NFC is a gesture-based engagement (“wanding” a tag) that requires no exclusive concentration (e.g., no “focus.”). And, it's being applied to a wide range of mobile engagements, from payments to smart posters to electronic keys for hotel rooms. This cross-platform usage is what will drive NFC into becoming a standard.”
contentAI believes that NFC will help drive mainstream adoption of mobile engagement with real-world objects where combined NFC and QR code campaigns will become a de facto standard. However, many QR code advocates are fighting NFC rather than embracing it. The best campaigns they have seen so far include NFC, QR and Bluetooth.
People need to start thinking about launching a mobile campaign with some trigger in the middle. "What's crucial is that there is a cohesive plan to the campaign. We like to think of this as moving from Chapter One to Chapter Two in a book," adds Weymueller. "Chapter One's job is to get someone to want to get to Chapter Two. Chapter Two's job is to 'pay off' the 'setup' from Chapter One."
Looking ahead, NFC is being promoted as becoming commonplace—it is foreseen permeating our lives with wireless payments, door locks (hotels are already using this) and other real-world devices, including "smart posters." It will be as common as a credit card swipe (QR codes will probably never gain that level of habitual use.) On the other hand, QR codes will reign when it comes to printed collateral and because they're a low-cost solution.
Today, we can launch more QR code campaigns than NFC simply due to market penetration. That will level out during the next year or two. A deciding factor for QR codes will be if the technology can leverage itself to be a part of the larger mobile lifestyle. PI
About the Author
Chris Lehan is director of product development for Impressions Inc., a privately held printing and packaging company in St. Paul, MN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.