Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes25 Jan 2009
Microsoft have relatively recently launched their new “mobile tagging” beta programme. It’s quite similar to the existing QR codes that have been around for some time and it was for this reason that it caught my attention and I decided to give Microsoft Tag an evaluation in comparison to QR codes.
For anyone unfamiliar with QR codes, they use a simple matrix of monochromatic pixels to encode a string of text. Microsoft Tag on the other hand is a “High Capacity Colour Barcode” (HCCB) that uses five lines of a series of triangular markers coloured cyan, yellow or magenta (CYM) to encode a string of text. The text strings contain meta data as well as data effectively identifying what the data should is and how it should be used.
So the first thing to examine are the types of ‘things’ that the two technologies could encode. For these comparisons I’ve used the QuickMark QR Code Generator and the Microsoft Tag Beta.
|Data Object||QR Code||Microsoft Tag|
Microsoft Tag has a couple of features that can be applied to each of its available options. First of all a password can be applied to apply an additional level of security. Validation dates can also be added to any option allowing things to expire or be valid during a certain event or marketing campaign for example.
So at this first stage QR codes seem to have a greater range of ‘things’ that can be coded than Microsoft Tag, but Microsoft Tag has a few additional features that if you’re just encoding URLs may make it a better option. One thing I would like to see that isn’t covered by these (but I guess could be if you created a URL to an appropriate file) is something relating to a an event definition - e.g. iCalendar.
The next element I examined was the generation options for the final image.
|QR Codes||Microsoft Tags|
|PNG | JPG | GIF | SVG | TXT||PDF | WMF | XPS|
The QR code generation has a range of code generation sizes (30 levels) with UTF character set options and a couple of four level (L/M/H/U) error correction options. The Microsoft Tag generator on the other hand only offers a size changing option but rather than being level based the user can choose a code size between 0.75” and 120”.
Whilst the Microsoft Tag file formats for code generation are based around vector graphics formats ideal for printing I personally find it useful to be able to put the codes on a web page. I’ve frequently used QR codes on web pages to get software links or other information onto my Windows mobile phone so I think having the codes available directly as images to be published in-line on a web page to be a distinct advantage. So for me on this one I think that QR codes definitely have the edge as I would think that SVG and WMF could be used equally well by publishers (though if there are any publishers reading this who know differently then please add a comment to this post).
In my tests on an reading from an X-black LCD display an 88 x 88 pixel QR code for a URL was successfully read. A Microsoft Tag for the same information was successfully captured for just a 52 x 52 pixel tag. Less space for successful pick-up of codes is obviously an advantage as they take up less screen or page estate and so would cost less to put on a media advert for example and scaling up is not going to be an issue.
|QR Code||Microsoft Tag||Greyscale Microsoft Tag|
It was at this point that I wondered about the colour aspect of the Microsoft tag system so I thought I’d have a bit of an experiment and try a simple conversion of the colour tag to a greyscale tag - after all monochromatic printing is cheaper than colour printing. It turned out that the Microsoft Tag Reader could still capture and interpret it so it looks like the encoding may be more to do with contrasts than the actual CYM colours. However in greyscale the same basic tag used earlier could not be recognised at 52 x 52 pixels, but it was recognised at 73 x 73 pixels which is still significantly smaller than the equivalent QR code.
The greyscale tag is 97% larger in area that the colour tag and the QR code is 186% larger than the colour tag. It may actually be that a vCard code can now fit on the back of a business card or be displayed on a phone screen such that a code reader enabled phone can now read the vCard straight in.
So assuming that the Microsoft Tag Reader rotation issue gets resolved for the Omnia then the size benefit of Microsoft’s HCCB system gives it quite a competitive edge, and being Microsoft there’s a little more to this competitive edge….
The Microsoft Tag system relies on the reader having an internet connection as all of the encoded links actually link to information held on Microsoft servers. QR code decoding however requires no such connection. The benefit of the Microsoft route is that the number of uses of a particular tag can be measured and reported on - which is great. However if you want to use it to exchange a vCard on a midlands cross country train in the UK then you won’t have an Internet connection and it just won’t work.
So which is best QR codes of Microsoft Tags? Well I personally think that the QR code system might have reached the end of its functionality pretty much. The future is probably in some higher capacity data format. However QR code readers are far more prevalent on today’s phones and so I think they still have some life left in them, particularly if you consider how embedded they are in Japanese society who are undoubtedly the leaders on mobile technology.
Microsoft Tag may however be the future - after all it is a beta. So what do I think needs further development to move forward?
- I’d like to se the niggly camera rotation problem on my Omnia resolved (and I’ll mail it in once I’ve posted this).
- Add more encoded formats such as e-mail, geographic co-ordinates and calendar entries.
- The option to decode non Internet related items (such as vCards) without an Internet connection.
- Some additional guidelines on how to use the Microsoft Tags in greyscale to optimise the recognition on the reader (for reduced publishing costs).