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Microsoft Tags: A Compelling Alternative To QR Code Hyperlinks

Search marketers are interested in print-based hyperlinks: traffic to my QR Codes: Are You Ready For Paper-Based Hyperlinks? post remains strong. So here’s an in-depth look at Microsoft’s entry into the 2D code wars, called Microsoft Tags. Microsoft Tags is based on a homegrown technology known as high-capacity color barcode (HCCB). The Microsoft Tag is definitely distinctive in nature, and has an American southwestern look about it. The platform allows you to use two, four or eight colored triangle in a grid matrix. The first tag, which is based on four colors and a five by ten grid matrix, encodes a URL link to my blog. The second tag uses just two colors – black and white. The second tag contains seven rows, though both contain the same information.

Microsoft tag four color and black and white

As with QR Codes, Microsoft tags are meant to provide digital links between traditional printed media and digital content. To that end, Microsoft tag supports four basic content types: URLs, free text, vCards and a dialer.

  • URL : You can encode any URL, except those blacklisted by Microsoft.
  • Free text: Can encode up to 1000 characters. Password protection is optional.
  • vCard: You can upload contact info, or specify the detail by typing the information into a form. A password is optional.
  • Dialer: You can auto-dial a phone number. Password is optional.

With these four options, you can provide your customers with access to coupons, offers, online photos, video or contact information by displaying Microsoft tags on printed materials (posters and brochures) or clothing. They can also be used in digital displays such as TVs, PCs and Jumbotrons. The Microsoft tag manager supports WMF, XPS, PDF, PNG, TIFF, GIF and TAG formats for printed or digital display. Tag readers for mobile platforms include the iPhone, Windows Mobile, J2ME, Blackberry and Symbian S60 devices.

Microsoft Tags has a sunset feature. You can specify a start date (default is the day the tag is created), and you can specify an end date (the default is no ending). This is a nice feature to control time-based promotions. Each tag has an optional text field to record information about the tag’s purpose. It allows a maximum of 200 alphanumeric characters for this description. Microsoft Tags actually do not encode any of your information directly; they simply encode a short unique ID that points to your information stored on Microsoft servers.

The first two examples above use triangles to encode information. The platform is flexible, and supports two more visual display modes. You can use dots instead of triangles, or you can create custom tags that use stylized icons such as birds or flowers. If you choose to use dots, you have the option to use a photo-realistic background image. These codes can get pretty fancy as in the following three examples.

Microsoft tags Custom

In this example, I created a custom tag using a background photo of Siamese cats, Poncho and Chilli.

MSprague MS tag

The Microsoft Tag Contact Form

It’s great to have the option to type in personal information into a contact form on an ad-hoc basis. This form is somewhat limited—today, you would expect to see additional fields so that you could list your blog, Twitter handle, your LinkedIn profile, your Skype number and your company Facebook page. It would also be useful if I could add new fields to this form—many companies have more than one website.

microsoft tag form

Microsoft Tag Security

Microsoft ensures that Microsoft Tags can’t be tampered with by providing two digital signing security options to ensure the integrity of the unique ID stored in the tag. Since your sensitive company data is stored on Microsoft servers, this provides a additional level of security to complement password protection. The signing options available to you include:

  • No signing: You have the option to forego security.
  • ECC signing: You can use Elliptic Curve Cryptography and Public Key Infrastructure.
  • RSA-1024 signing: Until recently RSA-1024 was considered secure, but there have been reports lately that this has been cracked. I would expect that RSA will make changes to this version, or Microsoft will use the next level of RSA signing.

Microsoft Tags have many positive features and options. It also has some shortcomings. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.

Microsoft Tags Pros

  • The Microsoft tag footprint can be very small (¾ inch)—great for brochures with limited space requirements.
  • Tags are created in a vector format so that they can scale in size without compromising readability.
  • Every scan of your code can be captured because the unique ID is routed through Microsoft’s severs.
  • Tags can expire, which is great for time-based marketing offers.
  • Tags can be edited.
  • You can render visually stunning customized tags from an existing tag.
  • You can create a tag very quickly with just three properties—a title, URL and a start date.
  • Microsoft Tags supports GPS enabled phones to send a users position back to the publisher.
  • Optional password support provides you with control over who can see your content.
  • The digital signing technology is used to authenticate the integrity of the unique ID stored in the code. The overhead is very small—20 bytes.
  • Your information is not stored in the code—just a unique ID string pointing to a secure Microsoft Server.
  • The platform is supported by Microsoft’s considerable resources.

Microsoft Tags Cons

  • Requires that you register for a Windows Live account to access the Tag Manager.
  • Microsoft stores and controls your data. This may or may not be an issue for you.
  • Microsoft inserts themselves between you and your customers.
  • Tags are harder to decode if viewed from an angle or on a rounded surface.
  • Microsoft Tags requires an internet connection to decode and return information to users.
  • Your information is not stored in the code, requiring an additional step to get your information to your customers.
  • A tag title can only be used once in the creation process. The second time through it fails.
  • The free text mode is limited; it only supports, and returns 1,000 characters of information to your customers. This at best is about 200 words, and probably is not enough text to display a full restaurant menu for example. It’s unclear why this limit exist at all since the information does not have to be encoded in the tag.
  • Using the advanced display options requires employees skilled in manipulating graphics and layers in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop or Power Point.
  • Microsoft actively blacklists some URLs—for example:

Microsoft tag blacklist message

Microsoft Tags Vs. QR Codes

The decision is still out—there is not yet a 2D barcode platform that dominates the consumer marketplace. There are many platforms that produce 2D Code solutions including Aztec Code, Data Matrix, PDF417, ShotCode, Trillcode, Quickmark, Beetagg and SPARQCode. To get a sense for how Microsoft tags measures up, I contrasted Microsoft Tags with one of the existing major platforms—QR Codes.

  • Microsoft Tags can produce a much smaller footprint than QR Codes for printed materials. QR Codes grow proportionally to the amount of information that is encoded.
  • Microsoft Tags can be edited; QR Codes can not—they have to be recreated from scratch.
  • Microsoft Tags can be visually stunning—QR Codes are border-line ugly.
  • QR Codes have error detection technology that can recover data from physically damaged codes. It’s unclear if Microsoft Tags use Reed-Solomon error correction or not. I’ve seen others say Microsoft does, but I can’t find any supporting evidence at the Microsoft Tag web site.
  • QR Codes have technology to accurately detect codes on curved surfaces and decode them. Microsoft Tags do not—curved surface are problematic, though slight curves do not appear to be a problem.
  • Microsoft Tags can encode up to 1,000 alphanumeric characters, while QR Codes can encode up to 4,296 characters.
  • Microsoft tags are less prone to decoding errors since very little information is actually encoded in the tag. QR Codes will experience more decoding errors when larger amounts of information is encoded.
  • QR Codes do not require an internet connect (access to Microsoft), just a cell WiFi connection.
  • Microsoft Tags can prohibit you from encoding URLs on their blacklist. QR Codes do not care what you encode.
  • QR Codes are an open ISO standard; Microsoft Tags is a closed proprietary standard.
  • Microsoft Tags has a large well funded company promoting its own standard. No large company has stepped forward to champion QR Codes. QR Codes are championed by thousands of small companies—though Google is dabbling with this technology, they are not much of a champion yet.

A Final Observation

I like the display format of Microsoft tags—you can produce very visually pleasing 2D Codes that can be gracefully integrated into creative print. I do wonder how those visually stunning Microsoft tags will perform in the marketplace. This technology can produce 2D codes that don’t look like codes at all. Instead, they look more like abstracted artwork, in many cases. Will consumers, who are not on top of 2D Code technologies, know that the example below is a code?

Microsoft tag Balloon

It may well be that consumers have a very fixed view of what a code should look like. They know what a UPC is. They can look at a Data Matrix code, and guess that it is some sort of a code. It’s likely that a 2D Code’s effectiveness is directly tied to looking like a bar code. It is interesting that codes of this artistic quality can be produced. It will be fascinating to see if these custom codes catch on, and provide value to publishers in the long run.

For more information, see the Microsoft Tag web site.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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