Microsoft Tags: Microsoft’s Failed QR Code Alternative

Gunel Ismayilova

Apr 29, 2024

6 min read

Microsoft Tags

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Microsoft Tag is a technology developed by Microsoft, utilizing High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB), which encodes data in a 2D format using clusters of colored triangles instead of the square pixels typically associated with 2D barcodes or QR codes. Microsoft Tag works through the utilization of HCCB technology, a 2D encoding method employing clusters of colored triangles scanned by the dedicated Microsoft Tag reader application on an Internet-capable mobile device.

Microsoft Tags are versatile tools used in mobile marketing, providing quick information access, location-based services, enhancing print media interactivity, enabling contact saving on business cards, and serving as URL shorteners for interactive advertising campaigns with trackable analytics.

Microsoft Tags offers high data density with HCCB technology, color customization for visual appeal, versatile content linking, user-friendly setup, trackable analytics for campaign assessment, and support for location-based services on GPS-equipped devices.

What is Microsoft Tags?

Microsoft Tag is a technology developed by Microsoft, utilizing High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB), which encodes data in a 2D format using clusters of colored triangles instead of the square pixels typically associated with 2D barcodes or QR codes. The innovative approach increases data density by employing a palette of 4 or 8 colors for the triangles, although black and white are permissible when needed. The technology was created by Gavin Jancke, an engineering director at Microsoft Research.

HCCB employs a grid of colored triangles to encode data, allowing variations in the grid size, symbol density, and the number of colors used. Microsoft claims that laboratory tests using standard off-the-shelf printers and scanners have yielded readable eight-color HCCBs equivalent to approximately 3,500 characters per square inch.

Microsoft Tag, a specific implementation of HCCB, uses 4 colors in a 5 x 10 grid. It is employed in monochrome as well. The print size of the Tag is adjusted to facilitate readability by a mobile camera phone in different scenarios.

Scanbuy took over support for Microsoft Tag technology on the ScanLife platform starting September 18, 2013. Microsoft Tag was discontinued on August 19, 2015.

How does Microsoft Tag Work?

Microsoft Tag works through the utilization of HCCB technology, a 2D encoding method employing clusters of colored triangles scanned by the dedicated Microsoft Tag reader application on an Internet-capable mobile device. The application's camera function captures the Tag, and the encoded data (HCCB) is then transmitted to a Microsoft server.

Microsoft's server processes the encoded data and returns the publisher's intended URL associated with the specific tag. The URL hosts the desired content, such as a website, text, vCard, URL, online photos, or online video. The MS Tag reader application on the user's mobile device then directs the mobile browser to the specified URL, providing quick access to the intended content.

Users need a few essential components to execute and make Microsoft Tags work. Firstly, an Internet-capable mobile device equipped with a camera is required to capture the Microsoft Tags. The Microsoft Tag reader application, compatible with various platforms like Windows Phone 7, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Java, Android, Symbian S60, iPhone, and Java ME, must be downloaded and installed on the mobile device. An active Internet connection is necessary to complete the process. The Microsoft Tag reader application sends the captured data to a Microsoft server, and the server's response, including the intended URL, requires an Internet connection to be accessed by the user's mobile browser.

What are the Uses of Microsoft Tags?

The uses of Microsoft Tags are listed below.

  • Mobile Marketing: Microsoft Tags are commonly used in mobile marketing strategies. The tags are incorporated into various marketing materials such as print advertisements, billboards, packaging, and store merchandising. It transforms traditional marketing media into interactive gateways for users to access online information quickly.
  • Information Access: Microsoft Tags are efficient tools for providing users quick access to information. Mobile devices' Tag Reader applications capture Microsoft Tags and send the encoded data to Microsoft servers, directing users to relevant content through the associated URL. The content includes websites, text, vCards, URLs, online photos, or online videos.
  • Location-based Services: Microsoft Tags provides location-specific information on mobile devices with GPS capabilities. For example, a Tag on a real estate sign provides information about the property and a navigational map to the nearest location.
  • Enhancing Print Media: Microsoft Tags enhances the interactivity of print media by transforming static content into dynamic, digitally accessible information. For instance, a Tag in a magazine can lead readers to additional online content related to an article or advertisement.
  • Business Cards: Microsoft Tags are used on business cards to encode contact information as a vCard. It allows recipients to quickly save contact details by scanning the Tag with their mobile devices.
  • URL Shortening and Tracking: Microsoft Tags essentially serve as machine-readable web links. The characteristic makes the tags akin to URL shortening services, where the Microsoft Tag application sends the HCCB data to a Microsoft server, and the server returns the intended URL. Microsoft tracks users and provides analytics to publishers due to this redirection process.
  • Interactive Advertising: Microsoft Tags enable advertisers to create interactive and engaging campaigns. Users easily interact with advertisements by scanning the Tags, leading to a more immersive experience beyond traditional static advertising.

How Far Is the Microsoft Tags Working Range?

The working range of Microsoft Tag is primarily contingent on the camera's capabilities. The working range typically varies from a few inches to a few feet. However, the precise working distance varies based on factors such as the camera's resolution, focus capabilities, lighting conditions, and the physical size of the Microsoft Tag.

Higher resolution cameras, with more megapixels, capture smaller details more accurately, potentially extending the effective range. The camera's focus capabilities are crucial, especially in close-up scenarios. Some mobile devices struggle to focus on objects that are either too close or too far away, affecting the success of Tag captures. The physical size of the Microsoft Tag contributes to the working range. Larger Tags are readable from a slightly greater distance than smaller ones, as the details are more distinguishable to the camera. Environmental factors such as lighting conditions, glare, shadows, and surrounding obstructions impact the working range. Adequate lighting is essential for successful Tag captures, and an unobstructed view enhances the likelihood of accurate scanning.

Is Microsoft Tag Open for Everyone?

Yes, Microsoft Tag was open to everyone, and individuals or businesses were freely able to create and use Microsoft Tags for various purposes when it was active. Microsoft offered a platform allowing users to generate Tags, integrating them into marketing materials, business cards, advertisements, and other media. Users access the Microsoft Tag website or use the Microsoft Tag mobile application to create and manage Tags.

However, it's important to note that Microsoft Tag was discontinued on August 19, 2015. After the discontinuation, support for Microsoft Tag technology was transferred to Scanbuy, a company founded in 2000, and the ScanLife platform began supporting Microsoft Tag technology on September 18, 2013. The original Microsoft Tag service does not cover any changes or developments after 2015. Users interested in similar technologies or services must explore alternative platforms or solutions.

Are Microsoft Tags Easy to Set Up?

Yes, setting up Microsoft Tags was a straightforward process for users. The platform provided a user-friendly experience, allowing individuals or businesses to create unique Microsoft Tags easily. Accessible through the Microsoft Tag website or the dedicated mobile application, the setup involved a few key steps.

Users typically started by creating an account on the Microsoft Tag platform, enabling them to manage and track the performance of the Tags. The process of generating a Microsoft Tag involved specifying the type of content the Tag is linked to, such as a website, text, vCard, URL, online photos, or online video. Customization options, including size, color, and other visual elements, allowed users to tailor the appearance of the Tag to suit preferences or the context of its use. Microsoft Tags were integrated into various media, such as print advertisements, business cards, and product packaging. The user-friendly interface and customization features made it accessible for various applications.

What are the Benefits of Microsoft Tags?Benefits and downsides of Microsoft Tags

The benefits of Microsoft Tags are listed below.

  • High Data Density: Microsoft Tags, based on High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) technology, allowed for high data density. It means a significant amount of information is encoded within a relatively small space, making them efficient for conveying detailed data in applications like marketing materials.
  • Color Customization: Using colored triangles in Microsoft Tags allowed for customization with up to 8 colors. The color customization feature provided aesthetic flexibility and enhanced the visual appeal, making Tags more recognizable and engaging.
  • Versatility in Content: Microsoft Tags was able to link to various types of content, including websites, text, vCards, URLs, online photos, and online videos. The versatility made Microsoft tags suitable for various applications, from traditional print media to digital platforms.
  • Ease of Use: The setup and usage of Microsoft Tags were designed to be user-friendly. Individuals or businesses were able to create Microsoft Tags, customize, and integrate the tags into different media without requiring advanced technical expertise.
  • Trackable Analytics: Microsoft provided analytics tools that allowed users to track the performance of the Microsoft Tags. The analytics feature was valuable for marketers and businesses to assess the reach and effectiveness of their campaigns, providing insights into user engagement.
  • Location-Based Services: Microsoft Tags supported location-based services when used with GPS-equipped mobile devices. For example, a Tag on a real estate sign provided information about the property and offered navigational assistance to the nearest location.

What are the Downsides of Microsoft Tags?

The downsides of Microsoft Tags are listed below.

  • Discontinuation: One significant downside is that Microsoft Tags was discontinued on August 19, 2015. The discontinuation impacted users who had integrated Microsoft Tags into marketing materials or other applications, requiring them to seek alternative solutions.
  • Dependency on Mobile Devices: Microsoft Tags relied on users having mobile devices equipped with a camera and the Microsoft Tag reader application. The dependence on specific technology limited the accessibility of Microsoft Tags, particularly in environments where users do not have compatible devices or applications.
  • Dynamic Changes in Technology: The technology landscape is dynamic, and preferences for QR codes and other alternatives have influenced the decline in the use of Microsoft Tags. QR codes, in particular, gained widespread acceptance and were more universally supported by various scanning applications.
  • Limited Recognition: Despite efforts to promote Microsoft Tags, they didn't achieve the same level of recognition and adoption as QR codes. The limited recognition was a downside for businesses and marketers looking for widespread consumer acceptance and interaction.
  • Internet Dependency: Microsoft Tags required an active internet connection to redirect users to the intended online content. Microsoft Tags was ineffective if users didn't have internet access.

How are Microsoft Tags compared to QR Codes in terms of usability?

Microsoft Tags are not popular compared to QR codes in terms of usability. QR codes and Microsoft Tags serve as 2D barcodes designed to enable quick access to information through mobile devices in terms of usability. However, QR codes have gained broader acceptance and usage than Microsoft Tags.

Microsoft Tags and QR codes share common ground in their primary purpose — providing a bridge between the physical and digital worlds by encoding information for quick retrieval using a mobile device's camera. Both technologies link to various types of content, such as websites, text, contact information, and multimedia. QR codes have enjoyed wider adoption and recognition. One key factor contributing to the popularity of QR codes is universality. QR codes are scanned by many third-party applications available on different platforms, making them easily accessible to users regardless of the mobile device's operating system. The widespread compatibility has led to a more seamless and standardized user experience with QR codes.

Microsoft Tags, despite offering advantages such as color customization and high data density, faced limitations in terms of recognition and adoption. The dependency on the Microsoft Tag reader application and the discontinuation of the service contributed to a user base that was narrower than QR codes. QR codes are often preferred for simplicity, ease of recognition, and widespread support across various devices and applications.

How are Microsoft Tags Compared to Bluetooth Beacon in Terms of Efficiency?Microsoft Tags vs Bluetooth Beacons

Microsoft Tags and Bluetooth Beacons are distinct technologies designed for different purposes. Microsoft Tags, based on High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) technology, serve as 2D barcodes that encode information for quick retrieval through mobile devices. Bluetooth Beacons, on the other hand, are small wireless devices that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to transmit signals and communicate with nearby devices. Bluetooth Beacons offer a more versatile and context-aware solution compared to Microsoft Tags.

Microsoft Tags efficiently convey information quickly by capturing a visual code using a mobile device's camera. Bluetooth Beacons, by contrast, operate on a different principle. These small, battery-powered devices use Bluetooth technology to broadcast signals to nearby devices equipped with Bluetooth capabilities. Bluetooth Beacons provide location-based information, push notifications, and context-aware interactions. It makes them highly efficient for applications such as indoor navigation, proximity marketing, and enhancing user experiences in physical spaces.

The efficiency of Bluetooth Beacons lies in the ability to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously, allowing for targeted and personalized interactions based on proximity. Businesses and venues deploy Bluetooth Beacons strategically to engage users with relevant information when they enter specific zones. The Microsoft Tag focuses on visual scanning and information retrieval, while Bluetooth Beacons create dynamic, location-aware experiences. Bluetooth Beacons trigger actions on mobile devices, such as delivering promotions, guiding users through indoor spaces, or providing context-specific information.

How Much Does Microsoft Tags Cost?

Microsoft Tags provided users with a free service to create and use Tags for both commercial and non-commercial purposes during its active phase. Users generated Microsoft Tags through the Microsoft Tag website or the dedicated mobile application without incurring any charges. It included the ability to customize Tags, integrate them into various materials, and access analytics for tracking their performance. Microsoft Tags were designed to be a user-friendly and accessible tool for creating interactive and dynamic links between physical objects and digital content.

How are Microsoft Tags an alternative to QR Codes?

Microsoft Tags, while serving as an alternative to QR codes, faced challenges in gaining the same level of widespread acceptance and recognition. Both technologies function as 2D barcodes, allowing users to access digital content by scanning codes using a mobile device's camera. However, QR codes emerged as the more universally adopted and standardized option, surpassing Microsoft Tags in terms of popularity and usage.

Microsoft Tags utilized High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) technology, offering color customization and high data density features. Microsoft Tags had certain advantages but were not as well recognized and adopted as they should have been. The widespread recognition of QR codes made them a preferred choice for businesses, marketers, and users seeking a familiar and standardized solution for linking physical objects to digital content. The ubiquity of QR code support across various platforms and devices and the simplicity of the scanning process played a crucial role in establishing QR codes as a more efficient and universally accepted alternative compared to Microsoft Tags.

Are the Microsoft Tags Secure?

Yes, Microsoft Tags are secure. Microsoft Tag Security incorporates two digital signing options to safeguard the integrity of the unique ID stored in the tags, adding an extra layer of security to complement password protection, especially given the storage of sensitive company data on Microsoft servers. The available digital signing choices include the option to forgo security altogether, offering flexibility but potentially less suitability for scenarios prioritizing enhanced security. Another option involves ECC signing, employing Elliptic Curve Cryptography and Public Key Infrastructure, which are known for their efficiency and strong security properties. Lastly, RSA-1024 Signing, while widely used, has faced recent concerns about vulnerabilities, prompting expectations for adjustments or a potential shift to a higher level of RSA signing for improved security. The security choices provided in Microsoft Tags aim to cater to diverse needs, emphasizing data integrity in different scenarios, and users stay informed about evolving cryptographic standards and security practices to make informed decisions based on their specific requirements.

Are Microsoft Tags Dependent on the Internet?

Yes, Microsoft Tags is dependent on an active internet connection. Microsoft Tags are typically used on mobile devices to redirect users to online content such as websites, text, vCards, URLs, photos, or videos. The redirection is facilitated through a Microsoft server, which retrieves the intended online content associated with the scanned Tag.

The dependency on an internet connection ensures that users access the dynamic and online content linked to the Microsoft Tags in real-time. The redirection process hinders without an internet connection, preventing users from accessing the desired digital content. It's important for users to be aware of this dependency, especially in scenarios where internet connectivity is limited or unavailable.

What is the difference between NFC Tags and Microsoft Tags?NFC Tags vs Microsoft Tags

The difference between NFC (Near Field Communication) Tags and Microsoft Tags lies in the underlying technology and use cases. NFC Tags utilize radio frequency communication for short-range data transfer between devices, typically within a few centimeters, enabling quick interactions such as mobile payments. Microsoft Tags are 2D barcodes using High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) technology for encoding data, often used to bridge physical and digital content through visual scanning.

Microsoft Tags require a camera-equipped mobile device for scanning, providing a visual bridge between physical objects and digital content. Microsoft Tags are often used in marketing, advertising, and information access scenarios, where users can scan the visual code with mobile devices to access online content or additional information.

Microsoft Tags and NFC Tags both facilitate interactions between physical objects and digital content, but the choice depends on the type of use case. NFC Tags are ideal for close-range, contactless interactions, such as mobile payments and authentication. Microsoft Tags are suitable for scenarios where visual scanning is practical, offering a user-friendly way to link physical objects, like advertisements or product packaging, to online content.

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