I've been handing out my new business cards over the past week or so. People are initially bemused by the mobile barcode on the back. Once I show them how it can be read with a camera phone and turned into an e-mail address, telephone number or Web address, they're usually impressed. As I wrote in a previous blog post, mobile barcodes are a great way to convey information (as long as you don't try to cram too much into them).
But the technology's not without its limitations. When deciding what to put on out our business cards, we were faced with a number of choices: QR or Semacodes? Telephone number or e-mail address? Web site? All three?
We chose QR codes because they're more widely supported in the Far East but still work with many reader applications here in Europe. As for content, the freeform nature of 2D barcodes means there are few standards when it comes to the encoded information. Most phones use the vCard format when sending contact information via Bluetooth, but the format hasn't made it to mobile barcode readers yet. I think it's only a matter of time before it does — as mobile barcodes become more widespread, manufacturers will support standards like vCard and vCal.
In the absence of any obvious standards, we decided to encode our individual e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and a link to our Web site into the barcode. To the right is the back of one of our cards. We left off vCard tags because they appear as (fairly) meaningless extra text in the decoded information. In Nokia's S60 Barcode application, each piece of information appears as a link. Clicking on it brings up a list of options: create message, save to contacts and so on. It's a good example of how to integrate applications on a phone, and I think the addition of vCard and vCal support would be a welcome bonus.
Of course, for mobile barcode technology to be effective, you have to have barcodes printed on things and applications that can read them. That means designing new stationery and upgrading phone hardware and software. In many cases, tried and tested methods of getting information into phones — such as texting "info" to a shortcode — are more obvious and immediate. No matter how sophisticated applications become, there'll always be a place for quick and direct methods.
I wouldn't be surprised if we see more phones take the approach favoured by the likes of Sony Ericsson's P990i and P1 and Samsung's Omnia i900, which have integrated applications that use optical character recognition (OCR) technology to read ordinary business cards. They don't rely on special codes and are more likely to appeal to non-technical users.
Given that OCR is a mature technology in the PC environment, and that some smartphones sport more processing power than the first desktop OCR systems, mobile codes may be a short-lived phenomenon. Once every phone has enough resources to run a full OCR application, QR and Semacodes could be consigned to mobile history.