Recent new (beta) technology from Microsoft called Microsoft Tag is a new way of using colorized barcodes to imprint information anywhere and can be read by any device that has a camera. In the future, you will probably see these Tags everywhere. Please read on to hear about my concerns and why Microsoft has to make this open and free to be successful.
Update: After further investigation and thinking, it seems that it’s important to distinguish between Microsoft Tag and HCCB (High Capacity Color Barcodes). HCCB is the specification used by Microsoft Tag to encode an identifier, which is then used to query Microsoft for the real content. Problem with character sets is probably related to the server implementation at Microsoft and not the HCCP specification.
What is it?
It’s simply a way of storing information in a visual barcode. We are all familiar with the normal barcode that has lines in it; almost all products you buy in stores today are marked with one or multiple codes. These are identifiers for the stores to more easily register the products while checking-out.
In recent years there has come up many competing standards for barcodes and the latest update to the scene is High Capacity Color Barcodes (HCCB) which comes straight out of Microsoft Research.
To create your own tags, you can visit http://tag.microsoft.com/ and from there you can generate files as PDF, XPS and WMF. I seriously hope Microsoft will be quick to add GIF, JPG, PNG and possibly SVG support very soon.
There are four different types of tags you can make: URL, Text, vCard and Dialer. What’s interesting about this is the way your mobile phone can intelligently react to the various types and information that is stored in the tag. If it’s a website, you can easily launch the URL on your phone. If it’s a vCard, which is an open specification for sharing contact information, your phone will ask if you’d like to add that person to your contact list. The dialer will allow you to quickly dial the company or person that is encoded on the tag.
So what does it look like? Have a look at my own contact tag, or visit my friend Lars Wilhelmsen:
I have a special interest in internationalization as I live in a country in Europe. I live in Norway, and here we have 3 additional characters to the alphabet: ØÆÅ. Additionally, I have worked with customers in countries like Saudi-Arabia which require the use of Unicode at all times to have proper storage and manipulation of information.
So here is the rub with the current implementation of HCCB on my mobile phone: It only supports the top 126 characters in the ANSI codepage. At the current stage I don’t know if this is a flaw in the implementation or a flaw in the specification. That’s impossible for me to know as there is no openness around the specification of the HCCB.
What does all of this mean? It means when you scan the tag I provided earlier, your phone will ask you if you want to add “Bjell?s, Sondre” to your contacts. It is unable to process the character å in my last name. It doesn’t work much better with other characters that are outside the top 126 characters.
Why I even concern myself with these is anyone guess, as Microsoft have often had a tendency to first release their products and services in the US and later to roll out internationally if they have success. With the Xbox, Microsoft did pretty much a world wide release and it’s been very successful. The Zune on the other hand, has not yet been released outside of USA and Canada.
This is what Microsoft states in the FAQ:
Q. Will the Tag beta be available outside of the U.S?
At this time Microsoft Tag will be available to commercial publishers and the general public in the U.S. We have not made any announcements about the availability of Microsoft Tag outside of the U.S., but we will explore the possibility of making the Beta available in other countries.
So I shouldn’t really be blogging about this technology, as it’s not something that’s available to us. Something similar happened when Microsoft released Windows Live Mesh Technology Preview. It was only available to users in the US, though after massive pressure from the online users, they expanded their support to more countries.
With the birth of the Internet, we’ve seen how little country borders really matter. We are all living on the same planet and experiencing the same Internet. We watch the same news and can access the same services, from anywhere and from any computer (if we ignore the fact that certain countries filter, blocks, hide and alter content).
There is always government policies and regulations to blame on, when in fact you don’t want a service to be used certain places; though a company as big as Microsoft, with all their international resources and experience; they do not have the luxury of such an excuse.
Privacy is important and we’re losing it more and more. As identity thefts have become more common (and very easy to do) we need to always concern ourselves with the information we give away.
One thing I discovered with Microsoft Tag is the following: if you name the tag within the creation website with international characters, the mobile phone software will be unable to recognize the tag. I must admit that I was baffled by the fact that it didn’t even handle that. This got me thinking that the actual name of the tag on the website might possibly be imprinted on the tag itself. That’s a major privacy issue and there is no mentioning of this on the Microsoft website.
Then we have the reporting. When you scan a tag, they are sent to Microsoft for analysis. It’s not the mobile phone that does the recognition of the tag photo, it is Microsoft servers. This should be a privacy concern for the consumer that “reads” these tags on their mobile phones. The mobile software actually asks you if you want to publish location information to the tag owner as you scan the tags.
While this is very convenient for the companies that does advertisements, it will be a blocking issue for many other usages.
Costs and Open Standards
I would think there is a lot of money involved in these types of tags through barcodes. I tried to dig up some information on costs for producers that print barcodes on their books and groceries, but I couldn’t find anything. Though from what I know of barcodes, they are very simple and basic protocols. In my current project at work, we’re actually imprinting two tags on some automated document generation. We’re relying on the Barcode 39 and Barcode 128 standards for our need.
Another alternative barcode is the Semacode, which uses Data Matrix specification and is an open ISO specification for encoding URLs in the tag. The Semacode website states that Semacode tags are an "open system" and that tag creation is "completely unrestricted," with the SDK software tools being free of charge for non-commercial use.
Data Matrix is in the public domain for many applications, which means it can be used free of any licensing or royalties. The widely use standard in Japan is QR Code, which is protected by a patent but its rights is not exercised.
So to cover the costs aspect of Microsoft Tag, they state the following in the FAQ:
And in the event that Microsoft decides to charge publishers to use Tags, any Tags that were created and used during the beta, will continue to work, free of charge, for at least two years.
When it comes to the specification of the HCCB standard I was unable to find anything on the web. This is somewhat a concern for me, considering the fact that HCCB has the potential of becoming a mainstream protocol of data tags.
It’s essential that technologies likes this is based around open principles that allows for a vibrant ecosystem to evolve around it, with services, products, gadgets and so forth all coming together.
Why might it fail?
I’m predicting that the Microsoft Tag technology might fail within a short time if it doesn’t go through some drastic changes. These are my reasons:
- Lack of open specification.
- Lack of commitment to royalty free use.
- Requirement to acquire a license to use the technology.
- Dependent on centralize server technology.
- If the Microsoft servers are down, your phone won’t be able to recognize tags.
- Lack of international support through Unicode.
It has to be decentralized and it has to work locally. The phone should analyze the tag and no communication should be sent to Microsoft, that way it will actually work deep inside a basement or at the cinema which might block mobile traffic.
Let’s hope for a better tomorrow and I will continue to follow the progress of Microsoft Tag from its current beta stage and hope that it’s use can be applicable for more than just publishers of books, DVDs, etc.