In speaking recently with Beverly she said one memorable thing about her time at SXSW this year was the pervasiveness of QR codes. Indeed more and more marketers seem to be using them, though the audience for them still seems to be the super-wired users who know what to do with them.
The more I think about QR codes and the potential for widespread adoption and usage the more I keep coming back to RSS and its fate.
A strong case could be made for RSS being the most powerful tool of the Web 2.0 era. It’s what enabled, to a large extent, blogs to be read whether you were using a dedicated reader like Newsgator or Google Reader (a market that’s gone through significant contraction), adding feeds to your MyYahoo homepage or subscribing through Live Bookmarks in Firefox. That leveled the playing field for content distribution since it didn’t require the creation of a formatted email newsletter or other such tool. It also was a time-shifting tool, with feeds simply building up in your reader until you had the time to peruse them, which took a whole lot less time than it would to visit all those sites and check for newly published material.
But RSS never really caught on with the mainstream audience. Even those who were using it were often unaware of the fact that they were doing so, which was usually the case with portal homepage users who didn’t know it was RSS under the hood powering those headlines they were looking at. Tom Biro remarked once that the problem with getting people to use RSS was that it was the one thing on the internet that didn’t do something when you clicked on it. Which is why eventually buttons that automatically added a feed to MyYahoo, Google Reader or some other service eventually became widely seen on blog sidebars.
Unless something changes I see a similar history being written for QR codes in the next couple years. You can look at it on the page of a magazine, where it’s been placed in an ad with the promise that it unlocks exclusive content or some such. But too often there’s the additional instruction to first download a specific branded mobile app before scanning the code.
So while the developers and promoters of QR codes have learned one less from the history of RSS by explaining much more clearly what it is the user is expected to do with that little pixilated image, the fact that they’re being used in such a proprietary manner has the potential to stifle adoption. After doing it a few times to check out what’s available it’s hard to see most casual users downloading app after app for the single purpose of checking out an exclusive video or accessing a special wallpaper image.
To the extent that RSS did succeed – and it did even if it remains largely a mystery to some people – it was because it works everywhere. Some feeds may look better in some browsers or some readers, but you never ever got a “This Feed is Incompatible with Google Reader” error message or anything like it. A feed was a feed was a feed. And they were everywhere.
Similarly the success of QR codes, I think, depends on them being pervasive and universal. No special apps needed. They should work independent of any other bit of software and across all platforms. Only then will the potential of them enjoying widespread mainstream adoption be opened up.