This week I wrap up some of the most interesting interviews in my career. It’s been over a month of collecting facts, figures and vision from 25+ mobile executives and luminaries, in-depth information that will be the foundation of the Netsize Guide 2009, which I am writing as we speak.
Is convergence the end-game? Will mobile advertising foot the bill for mobile content and apps? What is the real value of location? How can companies remain relevant to their customers? Are mobile operators -well- outdated? These are just a few of the questions I have the freedom to explore in the guide with the full support of George Yaryura, Netsize Strategic Marketing Manager. Our goal: To co-create a highly accessible and valuable publication for mobile professionals and practitioners. I must keep the keep the details of these interviews confidential until the Netsize Guide is formally released at Mobile World Congress. But I can share my take of the megatrends that matter and the industry developments that merit a closer look.
Top of my list is mobile barcodes. A surprising number of companies up and down the value chain – from agencies to operators – have told me they plan to sharpen their focus on 2D barcode schemes that are built from the ground up to enable new forms of commerce and link the virtual and physical worlds.
Today’s announcement by Publicis Groupe – which sealed a partnership with Mobile Discovery, a platform provider focussed on joining up offline, online and mobile campaigns with the help of barcodes, mobile search and image recognition technologies – is a welcome confirmation of the pivotal importance of barcodes. (Kudos to both MobiAdNews and Mobile Marketer, sites that have consistently and expertly documented this nascent market. If you follow this trend, then I recommend you read their coverage.)
From in-store displays to outdoor billboards, the end-game is about creating a digital return path that consumers can act on using their mobile phones. Whether the goal is to encourage the all-important impulse buy or simply boost brand interaction, expect to see a flurry of activity as more companies step up to embrace these technologies.
This is good news for companies (including Scanbuy, NeoMedia, NextCode, Mobile Data Systems (MDS), Mobile Discovery, JagTag, i-Nigma, UpCode, ShotCode and 3GVision – not in any particular order) that provide the readers, symbologies and the back-end infrastructure to make this happen – as well as the brands, agencies and visual search companies (such as SnapNow) that got on the bandwagon early.
But with the excitement about the business objectives we can achieve using barcodes comes the concern that we may have inadvertently taken steps that will stunt market growth and shrink the pie for all the players involved.
I’m thinking here of the recent white paper on the topic of cameraphone based barcode scanning produced by the CTIA Wireless Code Scan Action Team. The white paper was created to accelerate the widespread usage of barcode scanning (using camerphone capabilities) in the U.S. and set a foundation that “encourages innovation and continual evolution of interoperable solutions through a wide range of participants.”
To this end the CTIA white paper endorses two formats: the open ISO standard Data Matrix (DM) and EZ Code, a proprietary code created by Scanbuy, a leading provider of mobile marketing solutions based around barcodes whose carrier clients include Sonofon, TDC and Sprint.
However, if the key is interoperability and defining a balanced ecosystem that will allow barcodes to (finally!) flourish in the U.S., then why has the CTIA white paper effectively tipped the scales in favor of a proprietary symbology by mandating that a code reader application (the application that scans the 2D barcode and actually decodes the alphanumeric data string that is encoded into a 2D barcode) include support for EZ Code?
EZ Code, though used by carriers and advertisers in a number of campaigns which I outline in this column, is nonetheless a proprietary format, with no clear licensing path for developers. In fact, it’s not entirely clear what the business model is. Purposely calling a proprietary solution a winner before the race is run – as this white paper effectively has – is hardly the way to jumpstart a robust, balanced and all-inclusive business ecosystem. What’s more, it flies in the face of the OMA (Open Mobile Alliance), which clearly states that proprietary codes can not be mandated.
So, the CTIA white paper declares all member carriers will support, at a minimum, DM and EZ Code. Is there a level playing field? Not a chance.
It’s an unfortunate outcome that Colin Gibbs, a sharp reporter at RCR Wireless whose work I highly respect, hints at in his recent post. Scanbuy has suddenly become the 800-pound gorilla and every body else (all the vendors that didn’t receive CTIA approval) are at a clear disadvantage. Ironically, the real issue in my view is the confusion this white paper creates in the marketplace. More fragmentation could very well create more opportunities for the real 800-pound gorilla: Google. (As we know, Google is working on an open source solution dubbed ZXing.)
In view of the controversy brewing about this white paper and the mixed message it sends to the marketplace, I caught up with several vendors in this space for their take. Scanbuy respectfully declined, but I am fortunate to have interviewed Jonathan Bulkeley, Scanbuy CEO, before the CTIA white paper was released. I will circle back next week with an exclusive podcast that gives us some important insight into Scanbuy’s strategy and roadmap.
Two companies that contacted me with written responses to the white paper were Mobile Data Systems (MDS) and Nextcode. Thanks to Liz Erk, who handles PR for MDS, for arranging a conf call/briefing with Rob DeStefano, MDS VP of Marketing, and Jim Levinger, Nextcode CEO. I was so impressed by her professionalism (and speed!) that I have since asked her to coordinate marketing at MSG.
To avoid any vendor spin we firmly focused on the larger issues of usability and flexibility – and the need to stress both in the next white paper. (This first white paper – though a step in the right direction, not only prematurely calls a winner in the barcode battle; it fails to detail the contribution of each company/player in the ecosystem and merely skims over the technical requirements for mobile device manufacturers. Clearly, the white paper must be viewed as a Volume 1.)
Points we (myself, Rob and Jim) agreed on:
1) The white paper has helped validate the camera scanning barcode market in the U.S., but there are serious shortcomings.
2) The market requires an open, universal and backwards compatible barcode solution. Supporting a proprietary route at this juncture sends a confusing message to the marketplace.
3) Key stakeholders such as advertisers have not been consulted at this stage. Their involvement in shaping the future of this industry is critical.
A word about advertising and the importance of open standards. In an ideal scenario, one the white paper calls a Direct Access Model, the call to action (a URL or other destination address associated with the campaign) can be decoded by the code reader software and executed upon without further assistance from the network. No middlemen, no control and no outside insights into clicks, conversions or customer analytics.
In contrast, an Indirect Access Model sends the data that has been encoded into the 2D barcode to a kind of clearing house for authentication and routing to a party there that makes the connection between the data and the campaign destination. (By way of background, Scanbuy’s approach is build around this model, a business strategy that allows it sit at the center of advertising campaigns and monitor their results.)
We know other vendors have issues with a proprietary solution. Now imagine the potential competitive disadvantage if these same vendors and their brand clients are must route their campaigns through a rival system (based on an Indirect Access Model) that exposes their campaign objectives and reveals their results. As Rob pointed out: “Every code is going to have to go back to Scanbuy, as if every company would want to be part of a closed, monolithic system. Individual companies will want to control their campaigns and who has access to the results.”
As in most cases, a middle course is usually the best path to take. Rob suggests a hybrid model paired with a more independent clearing house.
In this model the hybrid code would read and route codes to their proper campaign management portal. In the example he offered the a Clic2C code is read using the NeoReader client. The client would decode part of the code that identifies it as a Clic2C code and then query the Clic2C campaign portal at that URL to access the content. “Once it routes back to our Clic2C campaign portal, we reference the balance of the decoded data (the campaign reference information) that links back to the client with the brand’s designated content. This level of interoperability would allow users to be less concerned about the question: “Whose client do I need to have?” — and improve the user experience by enabling universal access content across campaign managers and clients.”
Read between the lines and it’s all about who owns the data. Brands want unique campaigns and will likely push back if they are presented with centralized control of their advertising message. Rob’s hybrid approach goes a long way toward restoring a balance. The bottom line: To move the market forward, we need open standards and open models that give brands – and all companies that want to participate in this emerging ecosystem – more control of their business destiny.
Disclaimer: MDS has provided MSG with a barcode free of charge for use in future mobile campaigns.