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Why NFC won’t kill QR codes

NFC vs. QR codes – a much discussed battle!


Near Field Communication (NFC) is a short-range wireless connectivity technology that enables data transfer through a simple touch of devices, allowing compatible devices within a few centimetres of each other to communicate with each other. Most people in the London will have used the technology with their London Oyster transport card which uses NFC chips. Quick Response (QR) technology (2D Datamatrix barcodes) is a type barcode that can be read by any smart-phone through the phone’s camera and a generic, free app that decodes the barcode into data.

In the past 6 months a debate has been growing over whether NFC technology will kill QR codes. NFC offers a more user-friendly interaction with simpler and fewer user steps for interaction (just touch two things together). A comparison of the two technologies makes sense because they both offer a way to trigger interactive content on mobile phones.

Journalists and bloggers wordwide are joining in the NFC/QR debate but many often miss the crucial arguments in the debate. In this blog, I’ll take a look over the pro’s and con’s of NFC over QR and argue why I think NFC is a complimentary technology, not a replacement. I’ll take a logical look to the industry and predictions within it.


Infrastructure: NFC technology requires special “initiator” hardware that creates an NFC field searching for a “target”, a NFC chip that holds data for the device to pick up. It is thought that iPhone5’s and future iPad’s will have NFC initiators built into them and various mobile operating systems are starting to add NFC capability, ready for any hardware that supports it. QR codes use the camera already in the phone and only need a small “QR reader” app to enable the device to support the technology. There are thousands of free QR apps available for almost all phones on the market and some phones (e.g. Some Blackberries) come with a pre-installed QR reader. In the near future, it’s reasonable to expect that the mobile operating systems will start including QR readers as standard on all phones.

Reach: There are still very few phones that support NFC on the market and I only come across the phones at specialised exhibitions or when I’m talking to NFC experts. The predictions are however that the availability will change very quickly. Reports state that 10-15% of phones on the market will support NFC next year – but – how many people will have these phones? My guess is that it will take 2-4 years before enough people have changed their phones over to an NFC enabled device.

Production & Implementation: To implement NFC a publisher must embed a NFC chip into every target (thing that someone should interact with). For things like Point of Sale displays and Travel Information Points, NFC will become a logical solution to implement. For direct-mail/business card type applications, where many items are handed out at a low cost, NFC will add a significant cost. It will be interesting to see what NFC Printing systems come onto the market and what cost will be associated with NFC chips as demand increases. At the moment, each chip is sold wholesale for between £0.40 (if you buy 10,000) and £20.00 (bought individually). Publishers will also need an encoding device (to write the data onto NFC chips), but this can already be done by most of the NFC phones. Generating QR codes is simple once you have a generator (a library of code that generates the image from text you enter). QR codes can then be printed for free, quickly and easily. The barriers to adding QR codes are really very low.


Remember: content is King

People forget that content is king when they start working with new exciting technologies. NFC and QR both offer great new ways to encourage users to look at content, but the content itselfand design/layout of the content is the most important thing. For NFC and QR it is vital that the content that is linked (regardless of which technology it’s linked with) is immediately relevant and that the content is optimised for the user’s device so that it works well on all the mobile devices in the market. For both NFC and QR this means not just opening a generic non-mobile-optimised homepage, but making as much effort on the “what” as the “how”.


QR and NFC both have their own strengths

I see one revolutionising way that NFC will be implemented: Mobile Payments. The large players (Google, Paypal, Visa, Intuit and a host of others) are getting behind NFC as a payment method. A recent study predicted that NFC mobile payments would grow from a £0 to a $50 billion industry by 2014. The fact that everyone will get used to the user interaction of NFC because of this does give NFC a boost.

Outside mobile payments, it’s foreseeable that NFC will take over some of the applications of QR codes. Point of Sale displays, tourist information points, travel information at stations – applications where one NFC chip will be scanned by many. However, I see a future for QR codes too. The notion that NFC will wipe out the printing industry is flawed, and I believe QR codes will continue to thrive in the printing industry. It will become as easy to scan a QR code as it is to touch an NFC tag.


The difference between the two won’t be as big as people say

Looking at both technologies in a demo comparison today and most people are impressed with the NFC interactions. Step forward 2-3 years however (when NFC becomes feasible to use in mainstream advertisements) and there are two factors:

a)       QR codes will be much easier to scan. Smart phones will have better cameras (which are the factor holding back fast QR scanning on the older phones). QR reading software will be built into the phone’s camera software, meaning no special app is required.

b)       NFC will need security features to safeguard against eavesdropping devices. Imagine you have NFC turned on while on a train and someone standing next to you simply holds a device within a few centimetres of your phone and pulls all your data off it. This type of security problem will mean users need to “turn on NFC”, which is the same process as turning on a phone’s camera. The difference in usability is then reduced to “touching the phone” rather than “pointing the phone’s camera”.


The future for people who have invested in QR like we have

I’m sure many people using QR for business has come across the question “what will you do when NFC comes along?”. Our company has invested in building our platforms that deliver turn-key professional QR code applications. However, 99% of what makes our platforms so good is content management and content delivery, *not*the QR generation element.

Anyone who has made an effort to create clever QR marketing applications/campaigns could quickly add a MStags, NFC chips, JagTags or any other “link” to the system. QRky could add MSTag as a print-option by linking a simple API into the platform. We could offer the option of ordering your own NFC tag with a few days time investment.  We may well do so, once we see NFC taking off.

Companies that rely on the code itself to win customers are just riding the wave of the uneducated customer, charging customers for something they can get for free. They had a short-term future anyway. Nothing is lost. If they offer something genuinely useful on top of QR code generation and simple tracking, the chances are that a tweak to integrate NFC or any other technology is relatively simple. And the cost of implementing NFC in an application is very small compared to the cost of setting up the backend infrastructure that may be required to support it. The people that will benefit most from NFC will be the ones that have experience and understanding in QR technology, and understand how both technologies have different strengths and weaknesses.

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