A new love: Q/R Codes and german print products

dwk_1_neu.pngYesterday i went by train from Hamburg to Braunschweig. As usual one of connecting trains was late. Fortunately the connecting station for this relation* is Hannover Hbf. This is a big central station with a T-Mobile T-Punkt and a fairly good newspaper stand. So besides being the day when the fall of the Berlin wall turned 18 (which is the age of majority in Germany)( it was also iPhone introduction day in Germany**. Since it was freezing cold at the platform i went down to have a look how T-Mobile is going to present the iPhone and pay a visit to the newspaper stand.

At the small T-Punkt they were showing some iPhone boxes and but no actual iPhone in their window display. Nevertheless quite a number of bypassers stopped and had a look at the boxes. Weird.

On to the newspapers stand. Much to my surprise the “Welt kompakt” (the tabloid version of the german national newspaper “Die Welt” sported a big Q/R Code on the front page, telling their readers that from this day the paper is going to be the readers link into the internet. I. E. that they are going to use Q/R codes throughout the paper in order to provide links to the user. They also wasted dedicated two more pages explaining what this was about.

Unfortunately the battery of my N95, which ships with an integrated barcode reader application (hidden deep in the file structure) went dead a couple of hours before. Since the N95 also sports a 5MP autofocus camera it can be considered the Rolls_Royce of all available phones wrt. barcode reading. So i couldn’t test the code right away.

spex_cover_314.jpgSo i went from the newspaper to the magazine section just to see that Spex a german music magazine also sported a Q/R code at their title page.

This is about 3-4 years after i seriously considered pitching this idea to some german newspapers.

But after doing some tests (with Q/R reader software on a Nokia 6630 and other phones) at that time i came to the conclusion that:

  • The mobile cameras need autofokus lenses before the idea is really suitable, and cameras have to be nearly ubiquitous among mobile phones (especially if you decide not to print the url along with the code)
  • The Q/R code still had to printed in to large a size in order to be recognizable with the camera (AFAIR: at least 2.5×2.5cm)
  • Switching from a Q/R code application to the browser and back is to cumbersome in order to provide any advantage over entering a short url in the browser or sending a short url via SMS and getting a WAP-push message back

In the meantime i kept an eye on the progress wrt. mobile barcode scanning, e.g. also having a look and some talks with the guys behind the BeeTagg, a proprietary barcode format gaining some traction in Switzerland.

  • IMHO the Q/R code had to come down to a size of 1x1cm in order to be unobstrusive enough to not disturb the layout of a paper or magazine. I still have to see a printed “normal size” Q/R Code in Welt Kompakt but i would be surprised if they are printing below that 2.5×2.5cm size.
  • Still the vast majority of the phones sold in Germany has cameras with at most 2MP and no autofokus. So i would be surprised that they could easily scan the Q/R code that is this small. And without the autofocus you have to keep your hand quite steady.
  • In addition all the readers without a camera or without the possibility to install third party apps are left in the cold.

In addition, as long as proprietary clients are used one cannot be sure which data is transmitted along with the http request. It is not too uncommon to have uniquley identifiable clients installed on mobile phones especially when they are installed over the air.Don’t get me wrong , i still think that direct interaction from mobile phones via 2D- barcodes is an intriguing idea. but for now i would stick with use cases like semapedia.org or the swiss bus time tables, use cases that have no or little restrictions on the size of the code.

A closer look at the Welt Kompakt

Having recharged the N95, i was interested to learn which information was actually comprised in the bar code printed at the front page of Welt Kompakt. A real direct URL or an ID that can only be resolved via a dedicated server with the server location and protocol hardcoded into the client or a mix in between.

Fortunately the “Welt Kompakt” Homepage showed an image of yesterdays front page (see above). This image proved good enough that the N95s barcode reader was able to decode it. I turns out that the code contains a URL to http://decode.kaywa.com/1200200370004 which in turn redirects to http://mobil.welt.de/kompakt

Sniffing a bit around http://decode.kaywa.com/1200200370005 also redirects to a Welt Kompakt page, a page containing an iPhone review. In addition the printed newspaper page shows “Zeitung | Mobile | Internet” on top of the headline, an obvious play on the “iPod |Mobile | Internet” introduction of the iPhone at this years Macworld.

Hence it is very unlikely that Welt has chosen the iPhone launch date accidently for the introduction of their Q/R code service.

This doesn’t lack some irony, since the iPhone is not able to recognize Q/R codes (at least not until now).

An alternative / additional approach for print / internet interaction

Hence i still prefer the following approach for optimizing the interaction between a printed paper and a (mobile) website:

  • Publish a short, phone keypad friendly tinyurl instead of the Q/R code.
    • This url should contain as little characters as possible, and be optimized for keypad entry.
    • That means that it should contain only the domain and the content id
    • The content id should either be content either as a numeric value or as the equivalent first characters printed on the respective key.
    • If possible avoid successive identical characters/numbers. This avoids waiting for the timeout that is needed to distinguish between entering the same character a second time and selecting the next character printed on the overloaded key.
  • Add a script to the mobileweb site that enables the reader to simply enter the content id in order to jump to the page encoded within the Q/R code would be sufficient. The reader then only has to bookmark this one page . Make this script also understand URLs that append the ID
  • If you deem it necessary write a little application which allows the end user to enter the id via your phones keypad and then sends an HTTP request for that page resulting in the page being displayed in the web browser. This application is definitely easier to write but presumably also easier to use.
  • Another option is to set up a SMS service that allow the end user to send an SMS with the ID and that returns a WAP Push Message containing the content URL (Ok, Germany’s  SMS pricing, where the sender of the SMS has to pay, doesn’t allow this to be a feasible model)


Actually ‘Relation’ is the official word used at Deutsche Bahn for what is called ‘Verbindung’ by ordinary people. Sorry given the title of this blog, i couldn’t help telling you.

Due to a number of historical events all happening on November 9th this day is widely called Gemany’s Schicksaltag, literally translated: day of fate.