Microsoft Tag: Microsoft’s own 2D barcode

[flv:microsofttag.flv 584 328]

It just wouldn’t be right if Microsoft didn’t have its own barcode technology too, which is why today Microsoft Tag (Beta) was announced at CES 2009. Much like other 2D barcode technologies including the popular but underwhelming QR Code, Microsoft Tag allows data to be stored in a graphical bitmap using shapes and colors. But with a twist.

If you were to assume Microsoft Tag is just a clone of QR Code, you’d be wrong. In fact you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking about it. Microsoft Tag is based on a whole new technology called High Capacity Color Barcodes (HCCBs), which was invented in-house by Microsoft Research. The difference is not using square pixels, but triangle shapes and colors to store data. The following diagrams show off its advantages.

mstagcompare

Unlike other tag technologies too, the Microsoft Tags don’t actually store the information. You see, all it stores is a unique ID which it then sends to Microsoft’s servers. This way, you can include much more information, and more variety of information, then if it was just on the tag itself. A nice side-effect of this is also the ability for publishers to gather reporting data on how many times it was seen.

To read these tags, Microsoft is making available today a downloadable application to a handful of mobile platforms including Windows Mobile, J2ME, iPhone, Blackberry, and Symbian S60 phones. A camera and internet connection is obviously required. To get the application, point your phone’s browser to http://gettag.mobi.

I’ve only played with Microsoft Tag for a few minutes on my Windows Mobile phone, but its a noticeably better experience than I’ve had with other 2D barcodes in the past. For example you can read it from a very far distance, from a very side angle and even if it’s partially blocked.

In addition, it wouldn’t just be a Microsoft platform without developer tools. That is why starting today the “tag maker” service is also available so anyone can create these tags. For the moment this is a free service, but out of beta, one could potentially see this is where Microsoft plans to make a buck.

I created a few tags of my own so you can try it out.

isstags

Update: Microsoft Tags work in monochrome too, unofficially.

96 insightful thoughts

  1. So are the tags placed all around the King County? (Redmond, seattle, bellevue, etc.)
    or is it just online and virtually around the world?

  2. My first reaction to this is it’s easier if it’s b+w because it can be published/printed in a wider variety of places, such as newspapers, where colour is not always an option.

  3. Actually Vuki thats a pretty good point… but newspapers are the only place I can think of and most of them are at least half colour pages now.
    But I have to say it is really really fast on my N95, way faster and much better than the built in QR code scanner and I’m guessing you could change the links or content of the tag at any time? That would be pretty neat.

  4. Yeah, by Internet standards this is ancient, they announced this technology years ago. It’s so old I remember reading about it in a PRINT media… (:)

  5. absolute garbage, why waste your time making something thats actually inferior to the existing solutions.
    you say its great because it goes to your servers so can provide more info oh but hang on a QR Code can point to the creators servers which is even better because they control the reliability.

    STOP ROLLING YOUR OWN FFS! AND ADOPT EXISTING AND GOOD TECHNOLOGY YOU BUNCH OF BELLENDS.

    so hoping the MS cutbacks throw your dept out

  6. The thing is that Microsoft’s Tag is “not ugly” as the alternatives lol
    and also being smaller is a huge bonus

    Why? Because it has a higher chance of being used in magazines, advertisements, shops and so on!

    Who would want that ugly datamatrix code ruining your pretty graphic designs?

    Think about it…

  7. Those complaining about this being a waste, they actually developed this years ago. In fact, there is one of these bar codes on the original Viva Pinata disc.

  8. There was nothing in this demo that could not also be done through QR codes. QR codes could be setup to have a unique stored identifier as well. Nothing new here.

  9. Cool idea, doubt it’ll take off though. It would be cool to see MS start including these on their products to alert users of special offers (mail in rebate via the tag page) or product information to help them gain more attention.

    How does the current system work? Guess I’m wondering what happens when a there is a major storm that knocks out some datacenters and internet traffic is affected. Scanning a barcode and waiting a few minutes for the traffic to get through isn’t something a retail outlet will enjoy, especially when the customer has a cart full of colorful barcodes needing to be scanned.

    1. As I see it the only benefit is the MS flavor offers far higher density. The only real drawback is the use of color rules out a lot of B&W only media. No need to make a holy war out of it.

  10. That’s interesting that the data is stored on the servers and not the tag itself. Pro’s and cons to that approach. Max seems to think that can be replicated with QR codes. I have a QR code patch stitched on my laptop bag which is fun for the early adopters, everyone else thinks it’s a logo. I have various QR code readers on my iPhone. They are all slow and you have to line up the camera perfectly to get a good reading. Sounds like the Nokia phones are much faster. What’s the deal with GPS with these?

  11. Dude — that was like an Oscar acceptance speech.

    This stuff seems to work pretty well. I guess the breakthrough here is that recognizing the barcode is so much easier and more reliable than it is with other types of barcodes (probably even including EAN-13s and UPCs etc.). On my phone (Samsung Epix) recognizing the code was instantaneous — absolutely zero lag, and worked flawlessly every time, and from a variety of distances, angles, and unsteadiness of my hand. Not bad. I’ve tried some barcode reading stuff in the past that was pretty hit-or-miss, so this cool.

    I guess the main thing is adoption of the bar codes. Unless we start seeing these bar codes all over the place, the app isn’t going to be of much use. Is there a limit on the size of the bar code (number of bits it can store)? How much headroom have they left themselves there?

    I can think of a cool application for these bar codes: just like you created one with your contact info, if everyone was to create such a bar code and save it on their phones, then exchanging phone numbers just becomes a question of scanning each others bar codes — much quicker than the usual type in number and name, give missed call, etc.

  12. Print these on your business cards, and have the URL point straight to a vCard file. Fun times!

    Well, except no one will have the app, no one will use these codes, and no one will recognize what they are. Ever.

  13. There is a big problem with getting these to print correctly in a newspaper, registration errors. When printing four color process each color CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) is on its own press plate, which can shift slightly or not be lined up correctly in the first place. This is a large problem with newsprint, as they are blow and go, quality is not their main concern, speed is. You can notice this by looking at 4C ( four color) newsprint where you see funky colors or one color hanging out to a side. This is not a problem if the barcode is only one color, you can’t have a registration problem on a single color. This is less of a problem in magazines, as they tend to care about the quality of the printing.

  14. Actually as Long pointed out in today’s piece, you don’t need to get the exact color — these barcodes can even work if they are monochrome — any one tint is all that’s required.

  15. The problem is if you do use 4 color the whole piece doesn’t shift color as a whole, but you get funky colors in the transition areas (there wouldn’t be sharp transitions between colors).

  16. Visually I think the garish colors of these microsoft codes are going to be hard to incorporate in many graphics designs. QR codes may look busy but given their longtime adoption in Japan they have become iconic and accepted in many contexts. At least QR codes are monochrome – goes with pretty near everything. It is true that huge binary QR payloads makes for big tags, but that’s also a rare application. QR codes are more often used for simply encoding URLs and email addresses, which is fine – achieves what these microsoft tags do, in roughly the same space, while remaining independent on any sole service provider acting as gate keeper for delivering the rereferenced payload, and the tag can be printed in monochrome on darn near everything. When QR encoded URLs reference server-hosted payloads, the user has the power to choose how and on which terms the client technology parses and retrieves the referenced payload. The QR parser can for example decode a human-readable URL which can be manually transcribed to any web browser. Aside from these observations, I think Microsoft tags would be almost acceptable if part of the encoded tag data was a URL for the payload decoding service, so as to permit non-microsoft entities to occupy the gatekeeper position. But overall, the net impression is that the Microsoft Tag is too proprietary, not robust enough, and of too little use to be considered a reasonable alternative to QR codes or other forms of payload-in-the-code tags.

  17. Um, didn’t anyone bother to consider that QR codes are fully compatible with every photocopier, fax machine, laser printer, and even dot matrix printer in the world and that Microsoft Tags are not? And that every Microsoft Tag costs much more to reproduce even if you’re able? (Color printing is more expensive.) Also, why would you want a barcode that can only point to Microsoft’s servers? You can point to any server with QR code. And that server can still redirect anywhere you want.

  18. The Microsoft code holds 100 bits of information, in the same area of DataMatrix code that holds 256. I’m ignoring error correction here, but that’s mainly irrelevant as the overhead will be similar for both. The QR code has a problem in that the guideboxes will always be large (but it could also store the 100 bits in about the same area). So the size comparison is disingenuous.

    So the advantage is in processing speed and reliability. This strikes me as being an algorithmic problem with the QR/DM recognisers, because once you have the bounds it is merely a case of sampling the source image in the correct places (multisampling I imagine, in a slightly offset pattern) to get the data. So maybe the speed up is that the tag code bound recogniser is faster, which may be a result of the tag design.

  19. Can these “TriangleCodes” be hidden stenographically in an image and still work? That would be really neat! But very scary.

  20. “You see, all it stores is a unique ID which it then sends to Microsoft’s servers. ”

    So, Microsoft gets to track all accesses to all tags and traffic .. nice (NOT)

  21. This is not about the technology, it is about a profit stream for Microsoft. The barcode is a ‘protected’ design and the system requires that you use Microsoft’s servers, as a publisher you will have to pay for the priviledge.

    From the FAQ

    Publisher Use
    Q. What does it cost for publishers or businesses to take advantage of the Microsoft Tag solution?
    During the beta period, commercial use of Microsoft Tag, including generating, using, and receiving consumer analytics data will be provided at no cost.

    QR-Codes and Datamatrix can perform the same functions and (for DataMatrix at least) are free from patents so you can roll your own solution.

    The only benefit the Microsoft scheme has is that they can use their monopoly to roll out the reader software on platforms that they support.
    Mungewell.

  22. Interesting, but way too complicated a system. You need a color printer to make the tag, and it doesn’t store as much information as a QR Code does. so what’s the point?

    And why we’re on the subject, how about a good, integrated UPC/EAN reading utility? They’re the most common, and arguably the most useful for consumers and for commerce applications. Or how about a plain old linear reading algorhythm? I’d love to print out my code 39 font barcodes and be able to read them and have the device act like I just typed in the characters! Simple, but no one has it yet.

    Ugh!

  23. Awesome. Of course, I’ve never really used any barcode scanners before, but still–very impressive.

    BarcodeGuy, I agree… I think they did say somewhere that more formats are coming soon, so at least there’s hope.

    This would be a great built-in feature for Windows Mobile.

  24. I’m always amazed at how many people think they know everything about everything. I had the same question about the need for color tags. What did I do? I actually tried printing one in black & white. Guess what? It worked. Flawlessly. So no, you don’t have to print Microsoft’s tags in color to have them work. Does anyone ever step back and think that maybe companies actually do think about the things they’re doing and that they really are trying to do new things that solve real problems? As someone pointed out there are pros & cons to the approach of QR & MS tag. I do really like that MS tag has the ability (out of the box) to dynamically update the information “inside” a given tag.

  25. I believe that Microsoft can create whatever platform that they would like for this technology. But, in this case (surprisingly!) I believe they are behind the times as far as getting to market on this bar coding technology. I’m pretty certain that a company called NeoMedia just rapped up the transport processes (via Patent protection) on how the bar coding is passed from hand held device to a third party server. With the exception of a color bar code like image which would be going against the “Industry standard”, Microsoft would probably only gain acceptance from their consumer base and NOT industry carriers. However, I do like the use of a color coded image, it is not supported in about 80% of the market space. I think all of this news will shake out in the this years CTIA event beginning next week. Cheers!

  26. Hi,

    Our company http://QRe8.com provides our clients with the ability to create datamatrix and QR codes. They are dynamic, branded, and supported by a ton of readers which ultimately gives the end user choice. We just wrote a cool blog post that compares Open Codes with Closed (Microsoft Tag) Codes. If it interests you please take a look

    http://bit.ly/3zvBdV

    Thanks,
    Erik

  27. not sure I like the fact that you have to send your data back to MS. Do they then moderate the content where you are pointing to? sometimes the code works, sometimes not? Also anyone know where to get a reader for iphone or even android?

  28. I believe that the Tags do not have to be color, they can be black and white too. I was playing around on their site last night and there is a tag that is black and white and it works just fine.

    –Kevin

  29. No the tags don’t have to be in colour. You can do a black and white version, or a colour version in greyscale as the system looks at the colour difference not the actual colour.

    -An MS tag is about 1/4 size of a QR code
    -The colour tags are easier to get a lock on, more reliable
    -You dont have to “reprint” your code with different data, just update at the MS server (I think thats smart)
    -Reader available on all phone platforms with a really nice software client

    All the basic tags are free, and always will be. (text, url, vcard etc)
    What MS reserve the right to do is probably host video or “systems” (perhaps ticketing) later to add extra value. I think this is smart also.

    For publishers, again, its free for the basic tag and redirect/vcard etc, but they reserve the right to later charge for analytics (which is a value add over a QR code where you’d have to perform that analysis yourself)

    All in all I think MS have really thought about this. MS Research have produced a fair amount of decent ideas recently. I for one hope these tags catch on as they are super useful. Much nicer than writing down phone numbers or URLs when you are out walking / cycling or in the car. If we can get a Micropayments system so I don’t have a pocket rattling with change I will be a happy bunny. Snap for data, swipe to purchase. Life would be good :)

  30. I won’t be using it. With many QR scanning software you’re shown where you’re going to be sent and decide whether to go there or not. It puts the user in control. With Microsoft’s tag you lose control. You must send the data to them to get the resulting link/phone/etc., and then they send you there instantly. What if the tag goes to a porn site? Too many negatives for me to use it over QR…

    – Data is not stored in the tag. (Some view this as a benefit…I don’t know why.)
    – Dependency on Microsoft to continue support of this tagging technology.
    – Microsoft gets all the usage stats for my tags.
    – Users have yet another app to download for scanning tags…and another Agreement to agree to when installing.
    – Tag has to be printed in color (or I have to use a kludge to get it to work without color).
    – We don’t know if this will continue to be a free and unencumbered technology.

    1. Good thing you dont click on those pesky internet links either eh. I mean it’s not like they contain any information or give usage information to whoever…

  31. It does work in B+W. I just scanned a code from a Microsoft add on the back of the Feb 14 Information Week. The add was full color, but the code was B+W. Worked just fine. It’s another option for linking information to a mobile device. It is also great for tracking hits and locations of users, if you allow that option. I still see the need for a tag that actually stores the informatio in the tag itself, such as contact information. I’d like to put a QRCode or Datamatix code on my business card.

  32. It’s obvious that MSFT is aiming to position itself as the gatekeeper of the 2D barcode ecosystem with Tag and that is the most concerning issue here in my opinion. If they succeed on this self centered quest they will have the control to decide who can use the technology, the cost of it, and information about every business that uses it and their Tag scanning customers. What is the benefit of this to anyone except MSFT when QR Code is already a well defined ISO standard without any licensing restrictions that can accomplish the same use cases and does not require any proprietary company to be your business/customer’s middle man?

    In addition to being a completely self motivated attempt for power by MSFT, this has the side effect of slowing or even preventing general 2D bar code adoption in the US by consumers/businesses due to confusion, incompatibility and fear of adopting the ‘wrong’ 2D bar code technology too early.

    Honestly I think this is somewhat criminal in that MSFT is obstructing a perfectly suitable and freely usable technology (QR Code) from taking off. There are many beneficial use cases for this such as QR codes containing or linking to personal health information, map info, instructions, etc that would normally take significant natural resources & create clutter (ie paper, signs, etc) or not even be possible without a technology like this.

  33. MS Tag reader for PC or Mac computer?
    I use the camera in my Mac laptop to scan QR codes in magazines. As I get older, doing things on the smart phone is less appealing, too small of a screen.

  34. Let’s put 2D Codes on the back of store receipts in 4 color process. http://www.stratprint.com
    We print four color register receipt tape for McDonalds and most grocery store chains around the country. Please review our program for clients that would like to use 2D Codes & QR Codes on the back of their receipts for advertising and marketing purposes.
    Jimmy Jump 800-247-4793 EXT 2725

  35. Printing the Tag image in colour within a traditional B&W document would normally incur a colour charge with a normal MFP printing agreement on an office printer. With the Xerox ColorQube , the minimal colour print density only incurs a black and white charge of less than 0.5p or 1 cent.

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