Microsoft's QR code clone gets a new life with Google-backed company

Credit: Microsoft (MSDN)

Remember Microsoft Tag? You’d be forgiven if not. Tag started out in 2009 as Microsoft’s answer to the QR Code. When it became clear that the QR Code was going to win that battle, Microsoft embraced it, supporting both QR Codes and Tag codes for its customers.

That was back in 2011. Since then, Tags haven’t gone away. Conde Nast, Ford, Chrysler, and Time are among the brands that have used Microsoft’s system to create Tags and then collect analytics about who is scanning them and when.

Now, Microsoft wants out of the business altogether. Tag still isn’t going away though, because another big player in the QR Code realm, Scanbuy, made a deal with Microsoft to license the technology and take over Tag’s corporate customers.

The deal is curious for a couple reasons. First, it’s interesting that anybody wants this technology that Microsoft seems to have decided it’s done with. In addition, it turns out that Scanbuy is backed by Microsoft's arch-rival, Google.

First, the details. Scanbuy, a company that like Microsoft Tag provides a platform for businesses to create and manage QR Code campaigns, will license the Tag technology and transition Microsoft’s business customers to its own platform. In two years, Microsoft will shut down its Tag service.

I asked Scanbuy’s CEO why he’d want Tag, given that it seemed to be a dying technology that Microsoft isn’t interested in any more.

“The fact is that there are a significant number of people who use Tag,” said Mike Wehrs, CEO of Scanbuy. “It hasn’t been what I’d call dying.” He said to pick up an issue of Allure magazine. “Every other page has a Tag,” he said.

But there are some good reasons why companies are still interested in Tag, he said. Tag has some benefits over QR Codes, he said. The reason Tag has appealed to some big name brands is because it’s proprietary technology that is controlled by one company – in the past Microsoft but going forward Scanbuy, said Wehrs. “That means we don’t have to worry about some random person creating a Microsoft Tag code generator and releasing rogue codes with malicious intent,” he said. “All the things that QR Codes have as a negative don’t exist with Microsoft Tag.”

In addition to businesses with strong brand identities, financial institutions and others with fraud concerns are also interested in Tag for that reason, he said.

Also, Scanbuy isn’t just licensing the technology but it will also be able to build on it. “Microsoft Tag could be developed into more capable kinds of things,” Wehrs said.

In the past, only people who had downloaded Microsoft’s app could scan Tag codes. With this deal, the 80 million people who have Scanbuy’s reader will be able to start scanning Tag codes. Scanbuy makes readers for all of the phone platforms -- iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and even older Nokia phones with Ovi.

Scanbuy earlier this year signed a deal with AT&T so that it now has arrangements with all U.S. operators but T-Mobile. AT&T is essentially offering its business customers a self-branded version of Scanbuy’s system.

The deal is particularly curious because of Scanbuy’s backers. Google and Motorola Solutions Ventures are investors in Scanbuy.

Given the acrimonious relationship between Google and Microsoft, this deal may seem surprising. So how did Wehrs manage to seal this deal? By not telling Google. “Google doesn’t even know yet,” he said when we spoke on Friday afternoon.

That means forthcoming Scanbuy board meetings could get interesting, since Microsoft will get a Scanbuy observer board seat for the next two years, right alongside Google. “Our board meeting on the 28th… will be an interesting day,” Wehrs said.

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