Microsoft Tags vs QR codes: The great debate

As more people get smartphones and become familiar with 2D codes – including the old barcodes, QR (Quick Response) codes, and my favorite, Microsoft Tags – we’re reaching the tipping point for mainstream acceptance of this new magic.

Microsoft Tags are usually several colors but can be one color (grayscale, black-and-white, or a spot color). QR codes and barcodes are limited to one color and require more space than a color Tag, which can be as small as 3/4". One-color Tags must be 7/8"

Since early 2009, Gaia Graphics has used Microsoft Tags on interpretive panels, business cards, maps, brochures, real estate signs, and books. We like Tags. Here’s why.


A Tag is a new kind of bar code, designed specifically to be scanned by a mobile phone. You can print, project, or display Tags almost anywhere. When the end user scans a Tag with their phone, the Tag automatically opens a webpage, dials a phone number, sends a text message, or takes some other action on the phone.

Tags can be scanned from ads, signage, magazines, retail shelving, products, packaging, clothing, Powerpoint presentations, etc. The Tag then takes the user to a website, video, map, menu, coupon, tutorial, survey, social network, and who knows what else some clever person will think of next.

On some phones, you just point your camera at the Tag and the Tag is scanned. Other phones you have to point and then click. Microsoft Tag requires an Internet connection to work. And if you don’t have an unlimited data package for your phone, extra charges could apply.


We’ve used Tags for a couple of years now. This post was originally written for a group of National Association for Interpretation members on LinkedIn and is focused on interpretive panels, but we’ve also put Tags on brochures, business cards, websites, real estate signs and other design projects, including a wildflower book. The book has three Tags in a row that take people to our client’s website, our local Native Plant Society, and the Gaia Graphics Flickr page where multiple views of the 300+ wildflowers shown in the book are displayed. (We also used Flickr during production in collaboration with the botanists, both to catalog our image resources and choose photos for the book.)


USA Today, TV Guide, Conde Nast, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Porsche, Amway…

The first instance I found of Tags being used on interpretive panels was a collaboration between Microsoft, NASA and a Chicago museum and airport, before Tags were released in open beta. It tickles me to think my company might have been second, when we put Tags on trail signs for the City of San Luis Obispo (California) in early 2009.

On the end-user side, I recently watched two pre-teen boys go from slouch to excitement when they saw the Tag on a panel and downloaded the software on their own and then their adults’ phones. The family huddled around the sign about 20 minutes altogether, which drew another six hikers (plus two babies in backpacks). The boys were the stars, showing the other group how the Tag works. Then they all went hiking. (On the other hand, everyone else I saw on my two-hour stakeout either ignored the Tag or skipped the panel altogether.)


Microsoft Tags and QR codes are read by smartphones, which have a camera and internet access. Next to the Tag we show the link to download the Tag Reader software, but newer operating systems include reader software for different kinds of 2D codes. A year from now I expect most people and their phones will recognize 2D codes, and within five years I think we won’t have to include the Reader link.

You can also set up a Tag to dial a phone number or send a text message. We’ve used the dialer on real estate signs, large enough to capture from a car at the curb. I’ve also seen Tags on freeway billboards, but have not tested their readability since I’m either driving or too slow to get my phone out. The target market must be people in traffic jams.

Tags use an arrangement of cyan-magenta-yellow and black triangles within a black square that has a white border. Colorful tags are more appealing to me than a QR code that looks like a black-and-white TV set on the fritz. Microsoft Tags can also be rendered in a single color (grayscale, black-and-white, or a spot color) and still look better than static. Both barcodes and QR codes are limited to one color.

Another graphic disadvantage of regular barcodes and QR codes is the relatively large display area required. Color Tags require only 3/4″ square. I found that 1/2″ color Tags work, but wouldn’t risk it, especially not with a bitmapped file. One-color Tags must be 7/8″ including the white border around every Tag. Additional info like the Reader link and base URL need additional space.

We made the total Tag footprint larger in the old days (ha) because we wanted to explain what it was. See the 2009 trail sign at the end, which gives the Tag and related info plenty of room. Now we tend to use a 3/4″ color Tag, showing the Reader link as “” and the base URL, such as “” in a space about 1.5″ tall. This allows us to use one or more small Tags that can be tucked somewhere near the logos, to separate them from interpretive content. People will find them.

Like all codes, Tags have metrics so you can track usage (users are not identified, except to Microsoft). The trail signs went up February 2009 and have only had 50 hits, 40 of which occurred in the past 12 months and 10 last month alone (June 2011). I think we’re near the 2D code tipping point and expect to see the numbers increase significantly. Tracking parameters have expanded since we began using Tags, which are no longer in beta, so the metrics are better.

Tags only interest a subset of visitors, but for them, the technology is highly engaging. I think codes in general enhance not only visitor experience but also panel management. For example, custom Tags use dots or an image within the square – a logo for example, or more advanced designs that can reproduce an image like a bunch of hot air balloons. In marketingspeak, Tags are both a low-cost advertising channel and a branding opportunity. For managers the value is in seeing which exhibits and events draw the most interest, or reaching out with surveys, deals for members, and fundraising appeals.

Tags can be customized, as long as the image correlates to the color and placement of dots. Notice that the black edge and white boarder remain.

Microsoft is not paying me to endorse their Tags! As a graphic designer since the late 1980s, I’ve always favored Macs to PCs. But Microsoft got the Tags right from the beginning, with one bad software update that turned out to be Apple’s fault. Otherwise, once I open the Tag Reader my iPhone sees the Tag and jumps to the website in a second, even when the Tag looks blurry.


Low light conditions: I’ve tested Tags and QR codes at the same time of day (though not recently) and QR failed more often in low-light conditions such as dusk. At first the QR Reader that I had read nothing, but I downloaded a different Reader and it worked fine when the light was good.

Glare: Materials that reflect light could make it hard for a camera to see a complete 2D code. Consider matte paper instead of glossy and HPL instead of fiberglass or porcelain panels to avoid glare.

Resolution: Cameras may have a problem reading 2D codes if they are low resolution (fewer megapixels), or require a button be pushed to take a picture of the Tag (thus shaking the camera). My 3 year-old iPhone had more problems reading Tags than my new one. It may have been resolution or software or both, I’m not sure.

Other readability issues: I always download the pdf version of the Tag so I can open it in Illustrator and get the live vector paths, which print more sharply than a bitmapped image.

Range: Cellphone range can be an issue for remote interpretive panels but I expect mobile coverage will only get better, especially as unused, long-range AM radio waves are adapted for cellphone traffic. Range and other technical issues will be resolved as the hardware and software improve.

Tag metrics: Currently Microsoft doesn’t tell Tag publishers how much time users spend on the website that was called up by a Tag, or if they download or email content like trail maps and brochures. If analytics code has been installed in the website, the website owner could get this data. If you need user data, you could set up a Tag that takes people to a website where they enter personal identification to get a discount, take a survey, or link to a customer loyalty program. Proper opt-in and privacy practices apply.

Cost: Microsoft Tags are free – free to download the Tag Reader application, free to scan Tags, free to create and use Tags. (Usage fees charged by the phone’s carrier may apply.) Microsoft could institute a licensing fee in the future, but I expect the Tag to remain free because what’s in it for Microsoft is the tracking data. Like Facebook, user data is where the big money is. And the more people adopt the technology, the more channels and eyeballs Microsoft’s ad servers get. The big debate about tracking user data is outside the scope of this post, but most people who have a website are interested in the metrics because it’s a good way to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.

Nature and technology: Whether or not we should encourage people to use smartphones in the woods is another debate, but if you look at it from a visitor-centric viewpoint the answer could be to let the visitor decide. For example, a Tag on a panel could take users to a mobile version of a zoo map. Very useful.



Microsoft Tags have several new functions. Here are some I haven’t tried yet:

Location-aware Tags: Location awareness is a fun idea because users can interact with the place, what Microsoft calls ‘highly actionable and engaging mobile experiences’. For example, a single Tag on a poster advertising an exhibit or event can deliver different experiences depending on where the customer is. When the Tag is scanned outside the exhibit, users can be directed to buy tickets or get more information. When the same poster Tag is scanned on site, the exhibit schedule or special offers only available for attendees can be displayed. A Tag scanned in a magazine ad for shoes can show the nearest retailer that has the shoes in stock, regardless of where the Tag is scanned.

Mobile platforms: App Download Tag is a new type of Tag that can be linked to a specific mobile marketplace or mobile site that has been optimized for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry or other device. The same Tag works for all mobile platforms, or end users can be sent to a default URL if a specific platform is not indicated. I’m not sure how interpreters might use this one. Any ideas? Comment welcome!

by Terre Dunivant, Gaia Graphics and Associates, San Luis Obispo, California