Why QR codes are important to Apple’s iOS 11

“Why on earth would you want to use your iPhone’s camera to scan a two-dimensional block-and-dot code?” Glenn Fleishman writes for Macworld.How could this possibly have a benefit worth the trouble? Why would Apple have any interest in building this in as an automatic feature within its Camera app?”

“Ask folks in China and Japan where advertisers, handset makers, and cell carriers pioneered 2D codes over 15 years ago,” Fleishman writes. “Apple says its listening to the Chinese market in adding 2D code scanning, but the benefits will be there for users worldwide.”

“Apple’s addition to iOS 11 will let you open URLs, add contacts, and even join Wi-Fi networks with just the Camera app plus a tap to confirm,” Fleishman writes. “While it’s common to ridicule QR codes, that was because of pure inconvenience. With ease, will usage grow?”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: We’re doubtful QR code use will grow in the U.S. unless there’s some extremely compelling reason to uses them (big savings!) as they’re seen as passé, at best, when they’re seen at all.

29 Comments

  1. QR codes are ugly, present security risks, and are completely unnecessary given modern OCR capabilities.

    While I wish Apple had held firm on not adopting QR, I do understand how much demand there is for it, especially in China.

      1. OCR has long been fully capable of doing what QR codes do. For a nice example of this, take an iTunes gift card and scan it with the camera. I did this the other night in low-light conditions and the camera recognized the code while my hand was still in motion holding the card up.

        “Store don’t scan at all in OCR”

        I have no idea what you tried to say with that would-be sentence.

        “Use the most practical, wide spread and bulletproof. Ease of use!”

        That would be OCR. The problem with QR codes is that they can’t be read by humans. That’s not practical and it results in a situation where the input must be confirmed after reading by the device or malicious QR codes can be used. With OCR, you know what you’re getting. As far as being wide-spread, this favors OCR as well. We’ve been writing in text for a really long time.

        1. “Stores don’t scan at all in OCR”

          I’m sorry if you can not piece that together.

          Pick up any product in a store. Notice a bar code? I use QR codes for companies at trade shows or on postcards. Very easy to implement. A QR Generator is built into InDesign. Sure they don’t look great, but useful and very easy to implement. I have no clue why you would be opposed to having a simple feature built into iOS. Basically the functionality of Red laser should be integrated into the iOS camera app.

          1. “I’m sorry if you can not piece that together. “

            Sorry if English is a second language for you, but that was incredibly poorly worded and not just a typo.

            Of course stores don’t use OCR. They’re using UPC because they’ve had this implemented as an ISO standard years before OCR was a thing. It’s also worth noting that UPC codes were developed with the idea that they wouldn’t be primarily consumer utilized, and even then, the numeric representation for humans is included below the code.

            Why aren’t stores replacing UPC with QR? Because humans can’t read QR and match it up with anything. Ever see a bunch of products on a shelf and compare the human readable code at the bottom of the UPC with price labels on the shelf? This is a great example of why human readable codes are important.

            “I use QR codes for companies at trade shows or on postcards.”

            That’s nice, but here’s the thing… You’re handing someone a postcard that they can’t read. They have to trust that the unreadable code is something they want, and it requires a capable camera/software to use it.

            You could accomplish the same thing if instead it was a URL printed on the card in an OCR-friendly style/font. The process for use would be 100% exactly the same as far as the phone is concerned, but doesn’t require any special software to print, and the recipient can clearly see where the URL is going to take them.

            Imagine one of your recipients getting the postcard and then trying to tell someone else how to get to where the QR code is sending them. Imagine this with posters, banners, stickers, etc… where the QR code can’t be read by humans so there’s no way to tell if someone maliciously replaced the QR code, nor is there any way to remember the destination of the QR code in case you came across it at a time that pulling it up on your phone wasn’t an option.

            Look, I get it that QR codes exist and it’s a problem that the iPhone can’t read them. After all, being incompatible with an standard isn’t ideal even if it is inferior. My point is that Apple has the means to introduce something far superior to QR, and has enough weight in the industry to bring about widespread adoption.

            1. I’m struggling to understand the reasons for your position, as it is very difficult to rationally defend.

              OCR is great, but the primary difference between OCR and QR is efficiency. QR code takes up significantly less space for the same message in Latin alphabet. QR code is not limited to latin alphabet either (it supports UTF-8). And with that, its efficiency is even greater (over non-Latin scripts that may take up even more space, and for many of which OCR is either non-existent, or in its infancy, with high level of error).

              OCR has come a very long way. Today, it is highly reliable and accurate. However, there is zero error-correction or error-handling. While the processing software has now allowed it to be extremely accurate with text, especially in English, where grammar and vocabulary easily resolves ambiguities, it fails with random or non-textual strings (URLs, passwords, security keys, etc).

              Probably the most significant advantage of QR code is its non-human readability. It allows for visual transmission of a coded message that no human can possibly intercept without a proper device. I can’t possibly understand how this can be a disadvantage.

              The short of it is, QR code is extremely practical and efficient way to transmit a bunch of characters that would otherwise be difficult or impractical to transmit optically. There is no other solution that is anywhere nearly as efficient, as robust (extremely low error rate) and as secure.

            2. “Probably the most significant advantage of QR code is its non-human readability. It allows for visual transmission of a coded message that no human can possibly intercept without a proper device. I can’t possibly understand how this can be a disadvantage.

              QR codes can’t be securely protected from decoding with a device, so there’s no security advantage there at all. The disadvantage is in having a code that humans can’t read without a device which can be either a practical or security issue.

              Here’s an example of an issue…

              Suppose I want to put up posters and I use QR codes that direct a browser or app to a URL or provide it with other information. A human can’t look at the QR code and determine that the URL “http://WeWillScamYou.Com/giveusyourpassword.html” is an inappropriate URL as opposed to “http://apple.com/specialevent.html”. It would be pretty easy to just place a sticker with a malicious QR code on the poster.

              Likewise, someone seeing the poster without their iPhone, or when it’s not charged or whatever, can easily go back to their computer and remember (or write it down) what the URL is.

              “While the processing software has now allowed it to be extremely accurate with text, especially in English, where grammar and vocabulary easily resolves ambiguities, it fails with random or non-textual strings (URLs, passwords, security keys, etc).”

              I’d invite you to take an Apple gift card and scan it in using the iTunes or App Store app. I’ve been doing this frequently and with 100% accuracy in low light as the camera reads it before I’ve even finished moving my hand in holding the card up to the camera. If you’re thinking about OCR in terms of experiences with books, grammar, handwriting or any existing text not designed for OCR, then that’s kind of missing the point here.

              I’m not entirely opposed to QR codes, but I see them used far too often where OCR would be a much better way to go aesthetically, practically, and in terms of security.

            3. the constraints of OCR are probably one of the most powerful arguments in favour of QR. Because designers would have to use a very narrow set of typefaces that can unambiguously be interpreted by OCR, designers would much rater use the typeface of their choice, one that fits well within their design work, and include a tiny QR code for device readability.

              One major advantage of QR over OCR is significant space saving. Rather than putting an URL that is 30 characters long (or diluting the brand by doing some bit.ly abbreviation), a tiny QR square in its stead takes up significantly less space, and often even fits better within the visual design.

              Don’t get me wrong; I am a big fan of OCR, for transcribing large blocks of text, for augmented-reality translation of signs, menus etc. I’m just not really so sure it is the most efficient and practical technology for situations where QR works better.

            4. “the constraints of OCR are probably one of the most powerful arguments in favour of QR. Because designers would have to use a very narrow set of typefaces”

              The typefaces the designers would have to choose from would specifically be legible to humans, which when presenting this type of information is what should be chosen. So it’s a set of easy to read fonts or it’s using the design restrictions inherent with this:
              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QR_code_for_mobile_English_Wikipedia.svg

              “One major advantage of QR over OCR is significant space saving. Rather than putting an URL that is 30 characters long (or diluting the brand by doing some bit.ly abbreviation), a tiny QR square in its stead takes up significantly less space”

              While QR codes do offer the capability for more data, that benefit doesn’t scale down to short data chunks, meaning that for short URLs, you’d be consuming far more space for QR codes… this is actually one of my biggest objections to them, they’re ugly and can consume a ton of design space when a simple URL would’ve worked and been human readable.

              As far as the brand dilution… Any website is capable of having their own shortcuts, and should do so to enhance the branding. Which is better, StudioName.com/Movie, CarName.com/Model, Company.com/product or a big fat ugly sign that you can’t read, but someone may have replaced with a sticker that takes you to somewhere else entirely?

              “I’m just not really so sure it is the most efficient and practical technology for situations where QR works better.”

              It may be where I live/travel, but I’m just sick of seeing QR codes plastered all over the place, often with QR stickers over them, and used in place of human readable text when it’s all unnecessary because our phones are perfectly capable of reading the text if they had just provided it to us in a human friend format.

  2. This should have been built in a long time ago. Also the ability to scan any UPC code to get product pricing and information in stores. Currently you have to download a separate app like Red Laser. MacDailyNews take is uninformed. This is the most practical way to link the physical with virtual lookup instantly until NFC is on every product. Haven’t you ever taken a photo of a product in store to remember? This is WAY BETTER!

  3. I already scan QR codes:
    flok app [Free coffee]

    flok connects merchants and their customers, powering lasting and rewarding relationships. With our easy-to-use online dashboard and unique mobile app, we provide small businesses with the ability to attract new customers and keep them coming back.

    Upcoming QR code tech:
    SQRL or Secure, Quick, Reliable Login

    https://sqrl.pl/blog/

    The protocol is an answer to a problem of identity fragmentation. It improves on protocols such as OAuth and OpenID by not requiring a third party to broker the transaction, and by not giving a server any secrets to protect, such as username and password.

    Additionally, it provides a standard that can be freely used to simplify the login processes available to password manager applications such as LastPass. More importantly the standard is open so no one company can benefit from owning the technology. According to Gibson’s website,[3] such a robust technology should be in the public domain so the security and cryptography can be verified, and not deliberately restricted for commercial or other reasons.

    1. Yes, that’s what MDN said. QR code scanning apps are free and there are plenty to choose from. They’ve been out there since QR code emerged as a standard.

      The whole point of this discussion is making such apps unnecessary by building QR-code reading and processing software into the camera app. In other words, you won’t need to take up additional space on your phone for a single-purpose app, and access to the functionality of scanning QR-codes is a simple left-swipe from home screen away.

      1. The ‘single-purpose app’ isn’t going away. But as Herself helped me comprehend, the single-purpose apps aren’t going to have to build in the ability to scan QR codes. The process will be handed off to Camera with the results handed back. That will save a lot of code duplication in the single-purpose apps, such as flok.

  4. The US may choose to ignore the QR code, but globally they are fairly common and are considered rather practical. It doesn’t help Apple that Android had the camera app that could automatically read the code and send the user to the appropriate place (browser / email / app).

    There are some technological advancements where the US is either behind, or completely oblivious, regardless of their merit. QR code seems to be one of them. Perhaps embedding the functionality in the camera app may uncover its utility to the Americans.

    1. Why plaster an ugly QR code that can’t be read by humans (and all the issues that brings up) when you could just put a simple text link which our phones can OCR as well as being able to be read by humans?

      It’s like those old movies that show people driving around in cars with UPC codes as license plates. Yeah, the future is here and traffic control uses cameras that OCR human readable license plates.

      1. I wrote about this above, but here is a direct answer.

        QR code is much smaller that the text it is replacing. It is also much more secure, as it cannot be read by humans. You can transmit security keys, passwords, user credentials using it.

        License plates use very specific fonts that are designed to be easily read by UCR. More importantly, license plate numbering has restrictions that avoid precisely the things where OCR usually fails (letters I and O cannot be used, there are specific rules for the sequence of letters and numbers (for example, XXX-1234 in NY).

        There is only one reason why license plates don’t have codes instead of numbers: they need to be readable by human police officers (for now). The change to a machine-readable code, with all the benefits it provides, would likely be too expensive to undertake at this point. That may be the only reason we don’t have bar- or QR-codes on plates.

        1. I responded above as well.

          “License plates use very specific fonts that are designed to be easily read by UCR

          Right, and an OCR system can use specific fonts as well. I’m not suggesting that people should be free to write with whatever design they want, but rather when putting information on posters, cards, etc… they should be done in an OCR friendly way such that it’s both human readable and easily inputted.

          “There is only one reason why license plates don’t have codes instead of numbers: they need to be readable by human police officers”

          Right, that’s what I’m saying. With that same thought in mind, we should have an OCR based system such that people aren’t using codes that can’t be human read in situations where humans will want to read them.

          Again, I’m not entirely opposed to OCR, but when you see an OCR code out on anything in nature, it’s unnecessarily dehumanizing… this includes posters, banners, cards, etc…

    1. The app takes up space on your phone and the only time you use the app is to scan the QR code. And so you put it on you last page of your home screen, so when you need to scan a QR-code, you have to unlock your phone, swipe to the last page, launch the QR-code reader app and then scan.

      Once Apple builds the functionality into the camera app, you can simply swipe left to open camera. If the code requires some action (open a browser, create an outgoing e-mail message, or similar), you’ll be prompted for your touch-ID (or passcode) to unlock the phone. Much faster and simpler.

      1. “The app takes up space on your phone..” ..a tiny amount. I have music, (full length) movies, photos and apps (including QR Reader) on my phone, and still have 88.81GB of available (empty) space.

        “the only time you use the app is to scan the QR code..” ..the only time I use any app is when I use that app (e.g; Avis, British Airways, Lufthansa, banking apps, iBooks, Slingplayer, PayPal, eBay, etc.)

        “.. you put it on you last page of your home screen..” ..no, it’s on page 3 of 10.

        “..you have to unlock your phone..” ..happens automatically when I squeeze my thumb on the Home button.

        “..swipe to the last page..” ..no, to page 3, but I could – if I used QR Reader more, put it on the constant Dock at the bottom of the screen.

        “..launch the QR-code reader app and then scan..” ..yes, and it then takes me (via Safari) straight to the relevant web page.

        “..If the code requires some action (open a browser, create an outgoing e-mail message, or similar), you’ll be prompted for your touch-ID (or passcode) to unlock the phone..” ..no need: I unlock the phone with my thumb and can use QR Reader instantly – especially if I’ve already left the phone on page 3 of my apps.

        Sorry Predrag, much as I do appreciate your usually sensible comments, this time methinks you protest too much.

        1. You are really arguing hard for your side, and I can understand that.

          Not everyone can afford 128GB iPhone; many of us are still on 16GB. As tiny as the space is, I can take 50 extra photos in the space of that QR reader app.

          I think you missed my point about single-use. People like me, with 16GB phone don’t bother with single-use apps, and most of those you mentioned fall into that category, especially if all they do can be accomplished in Safari.

          Page 3 is the last page on my iPhone. Most people around me aren’t much different. This is of course very anecdotal and unscientific…

          You have to unlock the phone, which you don’t have to do with the camera app. Yes, it is a simple process, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t use Touch ID and type in the 6-digit pass code.

          There are no scenarios in which using a QR code would involve fewer steps than using the built-in camera app to perform functions. That is the benefit of adding the feature to the iOS.

          The point remains that if the functionality is built into the iOS, then there is no need for an external app. Why download Weather app when it is already embedded? Why download voice memo when one already exists? Of course, both types of apps are abundant in the App Store, and some people download them, because they need additional features that the embedded ones don’t have.

          My main point is, QR will become easier to use once iOS adds this functionality. And most people simply won’t need additional app to use it. But nobody will prevent anyone from going to the App Store and getting a dedicated QR app, if there are features they need, and that the embedded functionality doesn’t have.

          1. “..People like me, with 16GB phone don’t bother with single-use apps.”
            Oh. I didn’t realise. All the iPhones I’ve seen – of whatever capacity – seem to have scores of apps on them, whether owned by 12 & 16-year-olds or 40-somethings, or 60 to 70-somethings.
            And perhaps in the US – if that’s where you are – QR codes hardly appear anywhere. Here in London they’re on adverts in bus shelters and on trains, on brochures, in printed ads, sides of trucks ..all over the place. Or maybe I just see them because I’ve got a QR Reader app.
            I understand your point about a QR Reader being built into the native Camera app, and I realise that this may be a feature of (presently) more relevance to China and other countries rather than to the USA.
            But at present – and for me – it’s just next to no effort to flick to the QR Reader app and *bingo!* I’m taken straight to the relevant website, product spec, address of the restaurant, details of how to apply for something, or special offer.
            But, of course, I did make the initial (small) effort to find a suitable QR Reader app and download it.

            1. I don’t think we are arguing about the same thing.

              I’m totally with you on the QR code and their utility. America is in this strange bubble, and there are often technologies that get widespread use elsewhere in the world, while America is oblivious to them. Text messaging (SMS) took almost ten years to pick up in USA. Paying for services via text messages still doesn’t exist in America. Same thing with QR codes, which are barely there.

              My argument is that, by adding the QR functionality into the iPhone, there is a chance that QR codes may actually finally pick up in America, when users don’t have to download a new app in order to try them.

            2. Ah, I see.

              Well then, we’re not arguing at all! I agree: “..by adding the QR functionality into the iPhone, there is a chance that QR codes may actually finally pick up in America, when users don’t have to download a new app in order to try them”.

  5. At one point… text messaging was a “not in America” kind of thing. Europeans and Japanese were texting up a storm in the meantime.

    NFC was a “half-baked concept” because iPhones didn’t do it. RFID codes were the same. The issue with QR Codes is that you don’t know where the QR code goes. It’s not discoverable.

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