Making QR Codes Mainstream

You are fascinated by a painting you’ve discovered, and want to see more of the artist’s work.  You’ve been pricing a new toy at Best Buy, but need to see which stores carry it in hot pink.  You are walking past a billboard for the hippest band in town and want to add it to your digital calendar without skipping a beat.  Maybe you’re even reading an article about QR codes on your laptop, and want to quickly take it with you and share with a friend.  Manufacturers and marketers have been steadily dropping more of these blocky barcodes all around us, but do you know how to use them yet?

Scanning this QR code will take you to https://grantnorwood.com/.
Scanning this QR code will take you to https://grantnorwood.com/.

A QR code (quick response code) is a simple 2D barcode that holds 4 to 10 times the information compared to that of the standard barcode format.  And while QR codes were first used for tracking inventories in Japan, the uses of this openly standardized barcode format have become almost limitless, especially in the marketing world.  QR code readers are available for most every smartphone platform (for free), and with a simple point and snap with your phone’s camera, you can be transported to a URL to find out more about a new product or automatically add a colleague to your contacts list.

So if QR codes are so easy to use, and extremely useful to most anybody with a smartphone, why doesn’t everybody use them in their daily life?  Simple, we haven’t crossed that chasm yet.  In “Crossing the Chasm”, a marketing book by Geoffrey A. Moore, he describes 5 primary segments of technology adopters, each having their own traits, and each called to action by something different.  Technology Adoption LifecycleThey adopt changes to the technology in their life at different rates, each segment building on top of the momentum created by previous segments.  And while there is already huge value to using QR codes across the web, print, mobile and social mediums, we’re still very much in the early adopter phase.  This is no different than the advent of CDs or the daily usage of Facebook.  How long does it take you to switch over to what’s new, and how does that compare with others around you?

As a developer for interactive marketing agency Springbox, we most recently used them to announce our free holiday-themed wallpapers for mobile devices, and often pitch QR codes to clients who are looking for the coolest new way to connect with both new and existing customers, and quickly direct public interest to their campaign.

The good news is that QR code technology is simple to use, and it’s free!  With free apps like ZXing’s Barcode Scanner for Android, Ricoh’s iCandyMobile for iPhone and iPod Touch, or BeeTagg for BlackBerry, there are few obstacles to being able to scan codes easily from a mobile device.

All of us can be consumers of QR codes, but there is a chasm between early adoption and the beginning of mainstream.  This is where exponentially rapid adoption becomes a requirement to cross over to the Early Majority phase, or risk fizzling out.  Barcodes are not human-readable, so they may appear difficult to use.  But the action of snapping a QR code can save precious moments many, many times over.  It’s the difference between the grocery clerk manually ringing up every item’s price on paper, or scanning your cart’s items using a sophisticated barcode and reader.  And in the marketing world, fast engagement is key to staying relevant to the customer and improving conversion rates.

When users discover how they can create their own QR codes from major websites like Google’s ZXing project and Kaywa, or send them as coupons in their email newsletters using MailChimp, they will not only better understand what is available to them, but innovators will keep pushing the envelope with what the technology is capable.  This is demonstrated simply by the evolution that has already occurred, where barcodes for scanning automobile parts have been repurposed for other industries and consumed by the general public on advertisements, hockey game programs, t-shirts, and not surprisingly, food.

So if you want to help take QR codes from “that’s cool” to “I gotta have it”, just start scanning!

Show your friends and your family what you’ve learned, and help them get a reader on their device so they can enjoy showing up early to the party this time.

Be a champion amongst your co-workers by suggesting some of the many business applications of 2D barcodes, and proving how much value QR codes create for your company and your customers.

HTML5 video brings cool new features, same old fragmentation

I was excited to spend some time digging into the new video features of HTML5 recently.  My mindset has been that once HTML5 becomes the standard, browsers are finally going to behave better and conform to the web standards more closely than ever.  The reality is that the same old problems that have long plagued web developers still exist, and may become more prominent than ever with HTML5.

After the launch of a new website the other week, we had reports of the embedded video not playing correctly on some iPhones, even when using the latest iOS4.  I hadn’t done the research or development on the video feature for this project, so I ramped up on the implementation details quickly with the help of one of the original developers, and then set off to diagnose the problem.

Chiefly, I needed to define the bug (aka an “unexpected feature”) a little better.  The HTML5 video element (using .m4v and .ogv sources) is displayed in a modal window when the thumbnail is clicked, and while the desktop browsers all pass beautifully, the various mobile devices (iOS devices specifically) were hit or miss.

I tested on the devices that were used by the reporters of the bug, as well as with some of the other mobile devices laying around the office for better context.  All of the desktop browsers worked fine, as multiple codecs were used along with the HTML5 video tag to properly support Chrome, FireFox, and Safari, and an elegant Adobe Flash fallback was done for IE (IE7 and IE8 do not support HTML5 at all).  Only iOS was correctly displaying the modal window, but failing to play the video on some devices.

The devices I tested with include:

  • iPad (iOS 3.2.2)
  • iPhone 3G  (iOS 4.0)
  • iPhone 3GS  (iOS 4.1)
  • iPhone 4  (iOS 4.1)
  • iPod Touch  (iOS 3.2)

Here’s how I worked through it.

The Problem

  • iPhone 4  (iOS 4.1) works fine.
  • All other iOS versions and devices showed the poster thumbnail for the video, but the play button was crossed out, indicating the video was not playable.

The Analysis

  • The page was using textbook HTML5 code to declare a video element along with 2 separate source elements, an MPEG4 and an OGG, each with mime types and codecs declared.
  • The HTML5-compatible desktop browsers were running the video, so the code was at least syntactically correct.
  • The web server was sending the correct mime-type for both the .mp4 file and the .ogv file.
  • The root cause is likely a codec or player issue, not a code or mime-type issue.
  • Either the file was not encoded in an acceptable format, or the set of failing iOS devices were not able to correctly detect the (correct) format of the video file.

The Solution

Re-encode the file!  I know from some basic video production experience that file formats, video players and transcoders can be finicky.  Since a few code changes weren’t doing the trick, and the mime-type HTTP header was already being sent, the video file itself just seemed to be the next likely culprit.

Here’s a great article on mobile file formats.  I was most interested in the MP4 knowledge, and since I didn’t know which profile was used when the video was encoded, I decided to re-encode the video using the “baseline” profile.  The H.264 Baseline Profile is compatible with a broader range of devices, while the High Profile has better quality.  It made perfect sense that iPhone 4’s would play the newer, better quality video format, and that my 3GS (though running iOS 4.1) would be more likely to support only the Baseline Profile.

I used HandBrake to go back to my original .mp4 source file, and it quickly churned out my new video file in no time at all (they give us some pretty rad hardware at Springbox!).  With my new .m4v file (notice the different file extension) in hand, I updated our staging server and got the QA team started on approving the fix for production.  I had also removed the “type” attribute from the .m4v file’s source tag for better Android support, even though we weren’t officially supporting Android.

The fix was confirmed by QA, the new video file was pushed to production, and the client was happy.  All in a good day’s work.  However, in troubleshooting this issue, I’ve found that the HTML5 spec is really not locked down very well at all, and the fragmented support of current browsers (desktop or mobile) make development arduous and troublesome, especially across the ever-growing array of mobile devices.  This is nothing new for web developers, who’ve fought some hard battles with their software tools and technologies, even as some have matured into standards.  For now, those of us who publish video to the masses should get used to encoding videos in 2 or 3 formats (at least) and hacking code to make it work on everybody’s device.

Vendors, developers and clients alike aren’t waiting for HTML5 to be finalized.  In fact, they’re chomping at the bit because it’s new and cool (and they are right!).  An official with the W3C has been quoted as saying that they “want to be feature-complete by mid-2011”, which seems like a long way off.  But while HTML5 and it’s features were originally sold as a solution to the compatibility nightmare that is cross-browser web development, I’m finding that developers will need to wait a little bit longer for our jobs to get easier.  In the meantime, all of us code ninjas will need to continue doing redundant development to make things work for everybody – as usual.  But the results will be rewarding, and the client will be happy!

Could Apple be making nice with developers?

Apple has released a surprising statement that seems to relax restrictions on both developers and the tools they use to create apps.  BlackBerry has long been an open and easy environment to write code, and Google Android‘s approach is even more so.  Apple risks losing market share if they can’t make developers happy, and I’m one of them.  They also released more information on the guidelines they use to approve apps in the App Store.  It’s hard to believe they were so secretive about the rules they used to judge new applications and were notorious for rejecting apps with no concrete broken rule given.

The following is the statement from Apple, as you must have a developer account to access the actual URL:

We are continually trying to make the App Store even better. We have listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart. Based on their input, today we are making some important changes to our iOS Developer Program license in sections 3.3.1, 3.3.2 and 3.3.9 to relax some restrictions we put in place earlier this year.

In particular, we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code. This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need.

We are continually trying to make the App Store even better. We have listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart. Based on their input, today we are making some important changes to our iOS Developer Program license in sections 3.3.1, 3.3.2 and 3.3.9 to relax some restrictions we put in place earlier this year.
In particular, we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code. This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need.

This has 2 big impacts on my world as an iPhone developer and user.  First, it gives me back the tools to create mobile apps across platforms faster, and with better quality and stability.  Code toolsets like Appcelerator Titanium and PhoneGap are amazing examples of integrating languages, platforms and technologies to produce mobile software for multiple devices!

The second impact is on myself as a user, and the fact that my iPhone web browsing experience is often crippled by error messages where Adobe Flash content should be running.  While Apple is still leaving its restriction on Flash within the Safari Mobile browser in place, Adobe tools like Packager – which can convert Flash apps into iPhone apps – are now being approved for the App Store.  The product’s web page up until now has had a “discontinued” message after Apple started playing some really hard ball.

So, assuming this huge announcement is genuine and represents a real change in my relationship with them, I’ll say thanks to Apple.  Keep it up – this is how we want you and the entire mobile market to behave.  We’ll see where this all goes, of course, but given your previous history with developers, I’ll keep an eye on them for future threats to my choice of toolsets.  But without a doubt, my heart grew 3 sizes after reading about this move.

Apple releases iOS 4.1 to iPhone and iPod

Today, Apple released the latest version of the operating system behind the iPhone, iPod and iPad, iOS v4.1.  Of course, the iPad still only runs iOS 3.2 which is a little disappointing.  However, also announced was a status update on the future iOS 4.2, which will bring multitasking, folders, and other functionality to the iPad, will be here in November.  Finally!

I hadn’t downloaded iTunes 10 yet, so I had to sit and wait a bit.  iTunes 10 is an improvement in the look n’ feel, so that’s a plus.  I’m not the biggest iTunes fan in the first place after often losing photos, overwriting contacts, and other disasters that never happened with my BlackBerry Pearl.  Not even once.  And with this latest version also comes support for Apple’s new music-related social networking service, “Ping”.  More on that as it evolves.

iOS 4.1 has a few new features:

 

  • Updated Game Center
  • HDR photos
  • HD video uploads over WiFi
  • TV show rentals

I can’t wait to try out the TV show rentals feature, though mostly just to test out the technology.  My eyes wouldn’t last long staring at any phone’s relatively small screen for 30 mins or more at a time.  The HDR photos addition is arguably one of the cooler features, however I can’t give it a test drive with my 3GS, it’s for iPhone 4 owners only.  There’s a great tutorial on the subject of HDR photography at Ars Technica and how to use the new feature.  Some may argue that the method in which iOS implements the feature is “not true HDR”, which is an interesting point.  I’ll take a look at some of the third party apps for comparison before I render judgement on the quality of the resulting image, though.

The iOS 4.1 installation to my iPhone went smoothly, just as I expected.  There are rarely huge problems updating the iPhone operating systems, but always remember to do a separate backup of your device before you start any update as a best practice!  The best improvement with the update was the extra speed on my 3GS.  From applications to animations, and even resuming from it’s “locked” state, my phone runs perceivably faster.

I do recommend that everybody grab this latest update to your phone, it’s a safe and quick installation.

What everybody and their dog should know about QR codes

Nothing sounds very cool if it’s still in 2D, right?  Nope, there’s still one thing.  QR codes are 2-dimensional bar codes that can allow quick and purposeful communication like exchanging contact info, or effortlessly transport a perspective customer to your product website.

Follow along and we’ll talk about where you might have already seen a QR code, how to install a free app on your mobile device or smartphone, and describe some of the more creative uses of the technology!  Future articles will contain more technical information for developers and such, but for now let’s just get everybody up to speed.

Continue reading “What everybody and their dog should know about QR codes”

Snap a QR code from a product at Best Buy to instantly know more than the teenager trying to sell it to you

I was at Best Buy the other night helping a friend buy a new notebook computer, and she saw one of those QR codes I’ve been blogging about.  First of all, I’m excited that those who know me, and those who follow me on my blog and on my QR code facebook page can identify these 2D barcodes out in the wild!  They know what they’re for, even if they haven’t tried snapping a QR code before from their own device.

So, of course I had to whip my iPhone out and snap that QR code with one of the many free reader apps available (search for iCandyMobile in the AppStore, that’s currently the one I use most).  Snapping the code took me to the Best Buy website and immediately pulled up the model information page for the Toshiba computer we wanted to know more about.  We were able to see all of the information that was on the info card next to the computer, plus all the detailed specs that were not on the card and unknown to the teenager wanting to help me.   Cool  🙂

The concept behind scanning a QR code and viewing more information on my mobile is pretty great, but Best Buy has one of the best implementations I’ve seen.  They followed an important “best practice” of ensuring the URL for each QR code took me to a mobile-friendly page which was optimized for my iPhone.  The webpage was attractive and informative, and I could use the nicer features of my smartphone’s browser to be able to zoom into larger images and toggle animated panels of exactly the features and specifications I wanted to see.

Best Buy also took the opportunity to create a long-term relationship with me based on my short-term action of snapping that QR code, which is important in supporting brand loyalty and therefore revenue.  This was accomplished by allowing me to sign into my current Best Buy account, or to create a new one from the product page I had visited.  The page auto-filled my zip code in after I allowed their website to use my GPS location, and I could find other stores with that computer in stock.  From the same page, I had the option to read reviews on the product from other customers, and even add the notebook to my shopping cart with a single click!  Ok, at that point if the product was in stock, I could simply pick it up off the shelf and put it in my real shopping cart parked in front of me, but it’s a great feature when a store has run out of something still available from their website.

Overall, I was very happy with the experience – save one thing.  There were only 2 products out of the tens or more we looked at that had QR codes!  I couldn’t find out more about all of the other products sitting next to the Toshiba notebook, nor could I read the reviews posted by other consumers.  Taking a list of the products I was interested in would have required me to resort to typing out long and funky model numbers on my phone and taking some rough photos of the product myself.

How does one encourage a huge company like Best Buy to spend time and effort on affixing QR codes to all of their retail product displays, their marketing and promotional materials, and maybe even their price tags?  I’m already looking into it, and will publish my findings soon  🙂

Remember, today Sunday Aug 29th is the last day of voting for my panel topic at next year’s SXSW Interactive Festival! So please take the time to vote for my panel entitled QR Who QR: Exploring QR Codes, it only takes a few mins to sign up for an account, and they won’t spam the heck outta ya.  Leave me a comment or question on the page after you’ve voted, I’d love to hear what people think and it happens to help me in the selection process!

A really cool example of why *you* need a QR code app on your mobile device

This is what this whole QR code thing is about, right?  Wtf do I care unless I can do something with it!

But what if you’re reading a news article and wanna quickly take it with you?  Or you walk up behind your co-worker playing a remix of your favorite YouTube video and wanna share it with your friends on facebook in 2 or 3 clicks?

Here’s the answer.

I’ve attached a QR code to every page on my blog site, so if anything catches your eye before you have to catch your bus, you can take it with you in an instant.  How cool is that?!  Think of all the sites (more captivating than mine) where this would be useful to you.

Update: I don’t put QR codes on every page any longer.  I prefer simpler layouts these days.

Take a look at the right-hand side of my page, under the title “take this page with you”.  Pull out your smartphone, start up your QR code app, and snap a pic of the barcode to instantly put this url on your mobile device.

How I did it.

I found a WordPress plugin to create the codes, and while it isn’t very configurable or feature-rich, it does the job nicely!  Time invested?  It took longer to write the article than implement my “take it with you” QR code widget.  I still think I’ll write my own WordPress plugin and share it with the community, as there are many other features I’d like to implement to really prove how useful these blocky 2D barcodes really are.  Plus, it’ll be a fun challenge for me  🙂

Need more help?

Try checking out my QR Who QR: Exploring QR Codes page to learn how to get a reader app installed on your mobile device, and see what you’re missing!

Please remember to vote for my SXSW Interactive Festival 2011 panel topic on QR codes beginning Aug 11, 2010 at noon!  Visit http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ to create an account and vote for “QR Who QR: Exploring QR Codes” with Grant K Norwood of Springbox.

Vote for my topic on QR Codes for SXSW 2011!

My SXSW teaser article “QR Who QR: Exploring QR Codes” is in the works … so til then, read about how the panel picker works and how you can vote my topic on QR codes ahead of roughly 2400 other submissions!

http://sxsw.com/interactive/talks/panelpicker