The tech world has a habit of hyping a new innovation or idea, only to remain strangely quiet when such innovation fails to catch on. Such was the case with QR codes. These were hailed as the new way to navigate the online world, until slowly but surely it became clear no one was using them, and they suddenly weren’t all that exciting after all.
A number of reasons have been posited for why QR codes failed to become the next big thing, despite the rise of mobile technology that they were suited for. One is quite simple: for a while, people didn’t have a clue how to use them. According to one figure from 2015, “only 15% of smart device users know how to scan QR codes properly.” That’s clearly a big problem for mass adoption. But the compelling reason why there was so much confusion around how to use a QR code was simple: there has historically been no native app with which to read them. This meant that users had to download a third party app, adding an extra layer of complexity (and effort) that not enough people were prepared for.
But there may be sign of a resurgence yet. The reason? That very central issue—that is, the lack of a native app—could be solved with Apple’s rollout of its latest iOS. Among a slew of other changes, Apple announced that the camera app in the beta version of iOS 11 would now read QR codes. That means that a user need only open the camera, point it at a QR code, and be prompted to visit the relevant URL. That reduces a layer of friction that had previously prevented people from relying on QR codes as a way of easily accessing websites.
So, this begs the question: Why has Apple decided on this resurgence if QR codes aren’t in wide use? The answer could be the fact that in Asia, QR codes are a daily part of life. This is in large part thanks to WeChat, the all-encompassing messaging app that many Asians, especially Chinese, rely on for everything from paying for things and talking to their friends. As Translate Media wrote, “The WeChat app is so widely used already that it doesn’t seem like an arduous process to scan a QR code in the same way downloading a dedicated QR scanner app and navigating to it each time a user sees a code offline. China’s language may also be partly responsible for QR code popularity. Rendering the complex language into written form is tricky and time-consuming, and Chinese mobile users tend to avoid typing it where possible.”
It could be that Apple recognizes that QR codes are a utility that only failed to gain popularity because of a design flaw. By re-integrating it into their native iOS, Apple could bring about the resurgence of something that had the potential to be popular all along.
As TechCrunch rightly noted, “Using QR codes are actually really convenient — they are a great alternative to having to type out a URL or manually input a selection. Just ask any mobile user in Asia, where QR codes are used daily to order food, make payments — you name it. This trend is only increasing, and it seems Apple had no choice but to finally embrace the standard and offer native support to users. Now it will be interesting to see if the U.S. circles back to its short-lived QR obsession.”
Only time will tell for sure, but it seems that QR codes are getting a well-deserved second chance at becoming mainstream.