Ina Fried

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Those Nerdy Bar Codes Are Getting Smarter, More Personal and (A Bit) More Popular

Sure, they’re still dorky, but it appears those two-dimensional bar codes aren’t going away anytime soon.

In fact, an increasing number of Americans seem willing to pull out their phone and snap a picture to get more information. Some 5 percent of Americans — and 15 percent of smartphone owners — have scanned such a code in the last three months, according to new figures due to be released on Monday by Forrester. A year ago, only 1 percent of Americans had been willing or able to do so.

Bar codes have become a staple in magazine ads, on products and in stores.

Marketers still have mixed feelings about their effectiveness, but bar codes provide an efficient and cheap means to link the online and offline worlds. Other technologies, such as near field communications (NFC), also hold promise, but lack the accessibility of QR codes, which can be read by any smartphone with a camera. NFC, while potentially more elegant, requires special hardware in both the phone and whatever is being read.

Plus, the distinctive look of bar codes also makes them almost an advertisement for themselves. See a bunch of dots, whip out your smartphone — at least for the 5 percent of the population currently willing to do such a thing.

The most common of the codes are standard QR codes with their pattern of black dots, but Microsoft has also been pushing a rival approach, known as Microsoft Tag, that generally consists of multicolored triangles in various patterns.

Others, such as Digimarc, are pushing methods for embedding the codes into the page so that they don’t disturb the visual layout. The challenge, though, is that it is harder for readers to know that there is more content available.

The codes are also growing more personalized. Historically, they’ve tended to be generic, applying to all users and viewers. Now some folks are trying to see if it is worth the trouble to create individual codes for each unit. An early example of this is Seattle-based Bakon Vodka, which is putting a QR code and unique serial number on each bottle, in an attempt to create an online community for connoisseurs of its swine-infused swill.

Bakon’s program will allow customers to earn various badges for buying new bottles, or for giving the product to someone who then takes it to a new location.

“It’s kind of a Foursquare for products,” Bakon Vodka co-founder Sven Liden said in a statement.

It is clear that the efforts are starting to catch on, at least in some cases. ScanLife, which tracks such codes, says the number of active users in its system has increased 300 percent from a year ago. However, most of those gains have come from the increase in the number of QR codes, rather than in increased adoption. ScanLife said the average number of scans per bar code is up a far more modest 39 percent from a year ago.

The best campaign in its system had more than 427,000 scans in a six-week period, ScanLife said.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald