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At National Post, two-dimensional barcodes link print readers to web

As visitors to Google know, today is the barcode‘s 57th birthday. (Those cutting-edge parallel lines received their first patent on October 7, 1952.) That seemed like a good occasion to check on a related technology that a few newspapers have toyed with this year: two-dimensional barcodes, also known as matrix codes.

When The National Post, the Canadian national daily, introduced 2D barcodes to its pages on April 1, skeptical readers might have thought the pixelated squares were an April Fool’s joke. They weren’t. The Post runs five to 10 matrix codes in each issue, alongside articles, letters to the editor, and other features. Readers who have downloaded ScanLife on their phones can photograph a code and, if all goes according to plan, will be directed to related photos and videos. (I had some issues in testing the process.)

Chris Boutet, the Post’s senior editor of product and engagement for digital media and long titles, wouldn’t disclose how many people are using the codes but told me, “We have seen modest but encouraging scan numbers since we launched. People are using it.” He said that usage had grown each month since launch but acknowledged, “Obviously it’s an emerging technology, and you’re not going to see huge uptake right off the bat, especially when we’re out in front with it.”

Two-dimensional barcodes are far more popular overseas, particularly in Japan, but they haven’t taken off here. Boutet said the Post was the first newspaper in North America to make regular use of 2D codes. The Canadian editions of Metro adopted them last month. Other interest hasn’t yet materialized: The New York Times, which put one of the codes on its front page in 2007 to illustrate an article about the technology, has talked about using them in the daily paper, but those plans are on hold. Google added 2D codes to its now-defunct print advertising service last year.

I wonder if people who are still reading the print edition are likely to adopt new technology on their cell phones. On the other hand, regular readers of newspaper websites heavily overlap with print readership, so this kind of crossover tool could be appealing, with time. [As someone who worked at The Dallas Morning News during the disastrous CueCat debacle of the early 2000s, I remain far too scarred to believe anyone would ever want something like this. —Ed.]

Boutet told me the most popular codes among Post readers have been those attached to developing stories, promising new information, like the ongoing saga of Jim Balsillie’s attempt to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes. (If it sounds like I’d heard of that story before this afternoon, I hadn’t.) The codes, Boutet said, are preferable to the way most newspapers link print readers to their websites: by printing URLs for section pages, rather than pointing people to the specifically related content. “All the stuff that we have to print URLs for,” he said, “it’s a disastrous application.”

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  • Glenn Fleishman

    I recently wrote about 2D tags for The Economist, and, Zachary, I think you’re missing two significant issues here by looking too much in the past.

    First, 2D tags are heavily used in Japan, the only market in which that’s the case. Carriers, handset makers, and advertisers banded together around a common format and ecosystem. Carriers wanted to push mobile Internet use. A recent study found that over 80 percent of mobile users had used a 2D tag, and the two most common uses were for ads and–get this–capturing a code from a Web page for use elsewhere (such as continuing to read an article you’d started on a desktop when you moved to your mobile).

    Second, cell phones outside Japan generally don’t have the code software installed, and, if installed, it’s not at the top level of the menu or a button away as it is in Japan. Scanbuy has the most prominence in the west, even though they use a more robust tag that requires a roundtrip through servers the company controls, because it has deals in place with all major carriers in Spain and Denmark, and has nascent deals in the Americas and other European countries. The deals come with preloaded software, which means users may be able to access the codes easily.

    Now, all that’s fine, but you have to have an advantage for the consumer, and that’s where coupons, special deals, more info, and easier reference should come in.

    We’ll see if it takes off, but prior to the last few months, there simply wasn’t enough software adoption. You can’t get a mass-market trend going (except Flash?) by asking users to install software.