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)

Rem.:

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.

Some Remarks on the Open Handset Alliance

So google finally announced a part of it’s mobile plans: A software platform called Android, built by the Open Handset Alliance.

There’s already plenty of commentary from the usual suspects. (See below for my favorite quotes). My thoughts:

  • In the 8 years im working in the mobile spaces i have yet to see an Alliance (e.g. OMA) or Forum (e.g. WAP Forum) to succeed. IMHO they where always doomed because operators and handset manufacturers tried to block each other. It needed a small set of predominant players (like Sun and Nokia in the J2ME space) in order to get something useful.With Google being the driving force and predominat player at the OHA (btw. a very nice acronym for german speaking people, like OMA) there is a chance that this is also the case here. But with players like Qualcomm i’m not sure.
  • There have also been / are a set of opensource Linux-based handset OS approaches most notably the recently abandoned QT’s Greenphone and OpenMoko. Neither of them is a large success. This, IMHO has two reasons:
    1. No or a very little chance to get access to a phone to put that system on.QT hat to build their own phones in order to get that done. Only a couple of hundred were build. That made them expensive.

      With HTC, one of the if not the biggest OEM manufacturers on board, one can hope that developers can get access to a reflashable Android-based phone easily. Ideally, they just publish a piece of software that reflashes their existing windows-mobile based devices.

    2. Small developer base for nitty gritty low-level developmentThere are only few people that are able (and love) doing the low-level programming needed to bring an OS to a mobile device.

      If in the OHA Google is sponsoring these people this would be a real winner.

  • Java is used instead for application development, there is no word on Javascript based development, Given the actual size of the java for mobile development community
    and my experiences with Opera Platform back in 2005 as well as recent reports with the javascript performance on the iPhone this is a reasonable choice for today. But the flood gates will not be opened until everybody is able to “develop” his own mashup by writing some *ML and javascript code.
  • There is word that Android is goin to be published under the Apache license, the press release only mentions: ” … will be made available under one of the most progressive, developer-friendly open-source licenses, which gives mobile operators and device manufacturers significant freedom and flexibility to design products”.I’m wondering how this interplays with Linux GPL.

    I also wonder how this custom built VM looks like. Having a good VM (and i presume that tihis VM is good) under the Apache license sounds interesting.

    And since Google is able to pay the bill for the TCKs, they might even calling it Java, not having the problems bug-labs are reporting.

  • Looking at the alliance membersI think the most interesting partners are: ChinaMobile and the japanese carriers, Intel and Sirf, HTC and Samsung on the handset side and Google and Nuance on the software side.

    IMHO, the most prominent member missing from the Alliance is Sun. I guess this has to do with the license.

    You couldn’t expect any other company that hat stakes in a mobile OS to join the alliance at this stage. This includes: Nokia, SonyEricsson, Microsoft and Apple.

    From these, i guess Microsoft has the most to loose, because they are in the handset manufacturing business, and the handset manufacturers love to get rid of these licensing fees (especially in the low and middle tier handsets). Thats the reason why Motorola, Palm and all the others have tried building Linux-based mobile OS.

  • The platform looks interesting for other kinds of devices too: I think that Chumby Industries and Bug-Labs will definitely have a look at it for usingit on their Chumbys and Bugs.
  • Maybe with Android, there is finally a place where the free roaming software agents written in Dylan i loved to read about in GeneralMagics early days can prosper. Really, i’m serious. OK, maybe not Dylan but aome other prototyp base ddynamic language.

Quotes

NYT:

“Today the Internet experience on hand-held devices is not optimized,” said Peter Chou, chief executive of HTC, one of the largest makers of smartphones. “The whole idea is to optimize the Internet experience.” Mr. Chou, whose company makes several phones based on Microsoft’s software, which are largely aimed at business users, said the phones based on Google’s technology would probably be marketed primarily to consumers.

A brief demonstration of the Google software recently suggests that phones made using the technology will have features and design similar to the Apple iPhone. Mr. Rubin demonstrated a hand-held touch-screen device that gave an immersive view of Google Earth, the company’s three-dimensional visualization software.

O’Reilly Radar:

All in all, very interesting. It’s remarkable to see Apple once again in the position of selling a whole-stack platform (software and hardware, at least — network sold separately), competing with a broad coalition of commodity hardware companies using a common software platform. I think they’ll repeat history — they are already repeating history — by not doing whatever they can to bring developers to their platform. I wonder if Google will teach them what they should have already learned from Microsoft.

Techcrunch:

No ad-supported phones, says Andy Rubin in Q&A: “Part of this Android solution is a very robust HTML Web browser, so there is really no difference between browsing on a phone [and on a PC]. Contrary to speculation, you won’t see a completely ad-driven phone on this platform for some time.” But he confirms that this plays into Google’s overall advertising strategy by bringing a more fully functioning Web browser to the handset. Notes that Android will require at minimum the equivalent of a 200 MHz ARM 9 processor. The platform is open source, and that will be its competitive advantage over other mobile platforms.

MokoNews:

Availability: Rubin: “All this software will be available in about one week to developers in an SDK“. Deutsche Telekom (NYSE: DT) CEO Rene Obermann said T-Mobile would be offering wireless internet and Web 2.0 devices “in the US and in Europe in the course of 2008”, creating a “better-than-internet experience”, while HTC CEO Peter Chou said its first devices would come “in the second half of 2008 with others to follow”.

FSJ:

The Journal kind of nails the problem with this story. Money quote: Tech consortia for decades have been notorious for failing to live up to their promise. Google Director of Mobile Platforms Andy Rubin acknowledged the troubled history of previous consortia, but said that Android was different because “we’re actually releasing in one week this software.”

But the issue isn’t about when the software ships. Consortia don’t work because nobody can ever agree on anything and everyone always wants to push the group in ways that advantage themselves and disadvantage everyone else.

Mobile Opportunity:

Impact on Windows Mobile: Ugliness. The handset companies endorsing Android are also Microsoft’s most prominent mobile licensees. I doubt any of them are planning to completely abandon Microsoft (they don’t want to be captive to any single OS vendor), but any effort they put into Android is effort that doesn’t go into Windows Mobile. So this is ominous.

The whole mobile thing just hasn’t worked out the way Microsoft planned. First it couldn’t get the big handset brands to license its software, so it focused on signing phone clone vendors in Asia, thinking it could use them to pull down the big guys. But Nokia and the other big brands used their volume and manufacturing skill to beat the daylights out of the small cloners.

Now Google is coming after the market with an OS that’s completely free, and may even be subsidized. This will put huge financial pressure on not just Windows Mobile, but all of Windows CE. Even if Microsoft can hold share, its prospects of ever making good money in the sub-PC space look increasingly remote.