/ Technology

QR codes – fleeting fad or future must-have?

QR code cartoon in museum

QR codes are popping up everywhere – toothpaste tubes, food packaging and even coins. The growing popularity of smartphones suggests that these codes have a bright future, but are they really that useful?

So what’s a QR code? Abbreviated from Quick Response code, it’s basically a type of barcode that when scanned with your smartphone can take you to all manner of content – mainly internet URLs. Some of you may even have been directed to this very page from a QR code in October’s Which? magazine.

Magazines and newspapers, unlike websites, are limited in space, so being able to direct readers to further information with a QR code has clear benefits. The trouble is, I only ever read papers on the Tube, which is distinctly lacking a web connection.

Some applications of QR codes seem just plain daft, like the recently struck Dutch five Euro coins and tattoos, while others seem a little bit more inventive, or at least useful.

QR code successes

One of the most effective uses of a QR code I’ve come across is on CDs or DVDs. This gives potential buyers a taste of an artist’s latest album or access to a film’s trailer while they’re browsing in store.

Others might argue that Betfair’s use of QR codes on the British female beach volleyball team’s bikinis was more effective. The campaign certainly turned a few heads – although I wonder how many people actually used their phones to scan the code.

In the CD and DVD example there’s a real benefit to the shopper, as they’re getting access to genuinely useful information to help them with their purchasing decision.

And I can think of several other examples where this would work similarly. What about nutritional information or recipe QR codes on food packaging, or QR codes in estate agent windows and car showrooms to reveal more info about potential home or car purchases?

QR code failures

But then there’s a lot of bad, or unnecessary QR code use, such as codes on cufflinks or cakes. These have an initial “how interesting” factor, which soon dies out when you realise there’s very little compulsion to want to scan these codes, especially when you have no idea where they’ll lead you.

I’ve also seen QR codes on business cards and CVs. These usually strike me as a little showy – and that’s me being polite. If the QR code on a CV was to take me to a portfolio of a person’s work, I’d much rather look at it on my laptop; not my mobile.

And I’ve yet to be convinced that TVs are a suitable medium for QR codes too. If I wanted to find out more about the person being interviewed on a chat show, I’d look it up on my laptop. If I did want to look at it on my phone, I’d be more inclined to type a URL into my phone’s web browser, rather than holding it up to the TV to scan a code.

The exception to this might be if there was exclusive supplementary content only available through the QR code, but in that instance I’d be frustrated with the producers for limiting this content from the rest of us who aren’t QR code fans.

Despite being around since 1994, I think we’re on the brink of a QR code boom. At the moment they’re too often used frivolously, but if companies can find practical uses for them, then their potential could be realised.


Perhaps a solution looking for a purpose, but I believe that this one will catch on. Not everyone enjoys typing text into a phone.

Conversely not everyone has a phone, or a smartphone, or a smartphone that can read QR codes.

My opinion is that it is just a fad to make smartphone users feel superior, after all, it’s not exactly new technology. Having worked at a prepress company, there are about 50 different types of product coding, this is just one.

My cynical side also says that this is setting people up for a nice virus…..

Facebook and Twitter were once ‘Fads’ and now all manner of companies link their offers to FB and Twitter – why? Because they can access all your friends, particularly as most people are not that savvy yet about getting security on these sites correct. There is little incentive for anyone to help in this area. I had an e-mail jusy yesterday, saying my friend had recommended I join Linkedin – he responded quickly and wrote to all his friends saying it was a join scam related to a company offering gifts, etc. in exchange for subscription for items – we all have seen these scams.

My view, therefore, is that this will be one of those that could be used to look into your accounts, address books, etc., and send these e-mails; unless the person whose account has been breached realises quickly, there will be no stopping them – another thing to look out for – it is here to stay and hopefully security software providers and Windows, etc., do something about them.


I don’t know if anybody in London has noticed, but these QR codes are popping up all over the tube. Utterly pointless.

What’s magazines & newspapers being ‘limited in space’ got to do with it? These QR codes usually take up far more space than a printed URL.

Maybe a use for these will develop but I don’t think there is one yet.

A printed URL has to be typed accurately or it will not work. A QR code eliminates the need for anyone (with a smartphone or other mobile device) to type anything.

The most useful QR code I’ve seen was the one sent to me by BA as my boarding pass. No paper, no messing – airport staff just scan the code…

Actually, those are not QR codes, but Aztec codes, which look similar but are incompatible with QR. Nevertheless, the principle is the same, and the concept works well with one’s boarding pass on a smartphone.

Graham says:
24 September 2011

I’ve used them on stations to download a timetable for my travel. Very quick and easy.ii

wojciech says:
24 September 2011

i use up codes on my phone for a local theme park just up loaded the qr code and got dates,time of opening,prices,and offers but some codes don’t work all in all good app to use think it will take off in a big way

Not too long ago people complained about web addresses being advertised, now they are ubiquitous. The same will happen with QR codes, just look at how many smartphones are now in use.

Laulau says:
24 September 2011

Fleeting fad; it was inconvenient and

Following the reviewer’s comments a wider use of tiny urls would be useful if a smartphone is too inconvenient?

Liam Trotman says:
26 September 2011

I think this is a fantastic idea. I run a restaurant and we have ours on the reverse of our business cards, which every customer receives when presented with the bi. Once scanned it leads you straight to our website were you can acess latest news, events and menus etc. We have received nothing but positive feedback. So in answer to the question will they catch on I would love to think so yes. If not there will always be something aroun the corner waiting for it’s big break.

With a “no bells and whistles” phone of just over a year’s vintage, with several years’ depreciation desired before a re-investment, and still managing usage at less than £15 p.a, I don’t think I’m going to tempted to up my game by this frippery. Marketing egos aint going to be sated by this old sluggard.

The theory is good as it can provide additional info on a product by linking you to a website but i have found that a lot of the qr codes fail to scan correctly

Having recently purchased an iPad2, I am very impressed by how well QR codes work. I have been aware of them since they were introduced, but had not appreciated how common they have become until I had a way of using them.

QR codes are sometimes quite large to make them stand out, but they can be small. It would be good to see more of them in Which? magazine, to make it easy for users of mobile devices to access related material on websites.

Hi Wavechange, we’re using them a bit more in Which? magazine… though I’d also like to say thanks for having a QR code avatar that goes to Which? Convo’s homepage!

It was seeing the QR codes in the November magazine that encouraged me to download a free code generator.

What code generator do you use out of interest?

I used Quikqr – http://quikqr.com
This is a free web-based system that does not place restrictions on how codes are used. I took a screen capture of the QR code, then resized and downsampled it in Photoshop.

Looks like a wonderful technology waiting to take off.
The key feature is the automatic scanning from physical object to computer.
This saves typing, and also eliminates transcription errors.
Given the amount of time we spend reading stuff every day, there must be some useful things you can do with it.
Certainly easier than the linear scan you need to read barcodes.

Lack of useful applications?

(1) MedicAlert style bracelets could encode key medical and personal information.
You could even have this added by tattoo if you had major potential health risks and were woried about losing a bracelet.
(2) Address and GPS coordinates in any guide book so you can scan directly into your mobile satnav.
(3) Security code etched onto property – more comprehensive than just a postcode.
(4) I would quite like the food facts (fat, carbohydrate etc.) on packaging encoded this way. Instead of working my way through all the tiny numbers, I could scan the QR code and my mobile device could show me a red, yellow or green for my specific nutritional needs.
(5) QR codes on wine labels – allow you to immediately check the vintage with your wine expert app?

Really, anything that now requires you to read, assimilate and process information in any written publication or on any written label.
The permutations are endless – just waiting for the capability to be rolled out to more mobile devices which will require current devices to become old enough to justify replacement.

You can aslo read these codes on a PC – either using a built in webcam or a USB webcam (much easier for scanning).
I read the QR code for this web page using software from dansl.net which uses Adobe Air,
No recommendation for this software because I’ve just started using it, and also beware because you give the software a lot of access rights. However it did get me here using the built in webcam on my portable PC under Windows Vista.

If this takes off it will require beefed up security to prevent the kind of attacks you get currently via SPAM and bogus web sites.
Digital signing?
A security layer which validates the URL or other encoded information before allowing it to be actioned?

All in all a wonderful concept with a great future.

I did find the review a little negative in parts.
For instance “If the QR code on a CV was to take me to a portfolio of a person’s work, I’d much rather look at it on my laptop; not my mobile.”.
Well, just take the CV and scan the QR code on your laptop – simples.
Much easier than having URLs, email addresses etc. all to type in by hand.
Works for me with business cards as well.



Though I am keen to see the development of QR codes I have not been brave enough to use the built in camera of my laptop to scan the codes because of the security risk. David is right to warn us about this and the need to develop proper security measures.

Teacher says:
9 November 2011

In Education we have been using them in a wood as part of an outdoor learning project. A simple QR code near a tree or plant gives the child access to audio information on the http://www.dunnottarwoods.org website. They can then use their cameras to upload a picture of the item with text. This is an excellent way of assessing learning, engaging the pupils and making a walk in the woods a 21st Century experience. The design and technology teacher is now expanding this to the town which will involve the whole community, tourists and business. It will survive for a while I think and is great for education because it is free.

The increased use of QR codes is likely to be the main reason that I will eventually buy a smartphone, but for the time being I will continue to use my iPad.

I would like to make use of the rarely used camera in my Mac laptop to scan QR codes in the Which? magazine and the many leaflets and magazines that arrive by mail. I’m not worried about security when using my iPad, but I worry about introducing malware to my laptop, either by installing QR code reader software on the computer or via something I have scanned.

Can the Which? Computing team offer any advice about the potential security issue of using QR code-scanning software on a laptop or desktop computer?

Hi Wavechange, had a chat with the Computing team. The only question really is whether the QR code takes you to a dodgy site, which is possible. You could then come into contact with malware, but if you’re using your laptop/PC your firewall and antivirus should be able to deal with it comfortably.

It’s probably a good idea to weigh up whether you trust the source of the QR code as well.

Thanks very much, Patrick. I do try to keep up to date with protection and backups.

Hi there, can someone at Which? recommend a QR app that I could download onto my phone?

I have been using i.nigma on an iPhone for four or five years without problem. I suspect if all phones came with a QR code reader, the codes would be used more widely.

I would be interested in a QR code generator that does not inflict advertising on those who wave their phones over a QR code. The free one that I used years ago was fine but has added advertising to codes I generated years ago. A modest charge per use would be fine.