NFC and QR Code - Friend or Foe

February 06, 2013   11:05 Category: QR CODES

You’ve probably seen (and maybe used) a mobile phone scanning a barcode and picking up a tag. It’s kind of magic where you can sweep your phone over a printed barcode or some hidden tag, and then without pressing button or touching the screen, you just hear a beep, and then the phone does something like: go to a web site, initiate a phone call, get a price comparison of a product, and more.

This is quite magical when you see it for the first time, but also convenient and useful, after you get used to the fact that you can have your phone pick up useful information from physical objects scattered around.

There are two main ways to get this done.

- For printed barcodes, this involves the camera device with an additional mobile app (you can download for free from most application stores). This application uses a clever image processing technology, which takes the images coming from the camera, and extracts the information that resides within the barcode. The information is basically text arranged in a specific format, and the app looks at the text to usually start another application (web browser, phone dialer, etc…) in order to complete the interaction.

- For NFC tags (NFC – Near Field Communication), this involves an internal device inside the mobile phone, which is basically a radio transmitter that sends radio signals to an external tag (which is also a radio transmitter in itself), to communicate and extract information that lies inside the tag. The information is a piece of text (similar to the text we found on the barcode), so an application can act upon it, go to the web, dial a number etc. Usually there is a built in application that come with the phone so there is no need to download and app, but you can still download various free apps thought their functionality is practically the same.


Because the main process looks the same – you wave the phone at something and automatically redirected to the web – many people tend to think that we might need only one of these technologies, so let’s pick the better one and stop using the other. I believe that this assumption is basically wrong, and each technology will find its special use wherever it has the better fit to the use case in question. So what are the differences between these two?

How do NFC and Barcode technology differ?

The phone - Well, to start with, you need a phone that can do the thing. For NFC, you need the chip inside. The good news is that many current smart phones have this onboard (most new Android, Blackberry, and Windows 8 – see a rather up to date list of NFC enabled phones), the bad news is that iPhone devices do not have this on board. For barcode scanning, the phone must have a camera. We can safely say that all new smartphones offer a camera, as well as a rich application store with plenty of code reading apps.

The user experience – Since the NFC radio transmitter is always working (if you don’t explicitly close it, and most people do leave it open always), you don’t need to start an app, so you just bring your phone to the tag and the whole process starts (sometime the whole process of communication, payment, confirmation, and opening a door, completes in less than a second so it is very convenient to pay to the train in japan with NFC. With code scanning, you first start a code reader app and then aim to the code making sure that the whole code is seen in the camera view. I have seen some suggestions to integrate this code recognition technology into the native camera application, but even then, the thought of leaving the camera always on freaks me out.

The environment – In order to read an NFC tag, your phone should be very close (less than 20cm) to the tag. This rules out scanning from a distance (billboard signs). On the other hand, barcode scanning has some difficulties when it is dark.

The cost – Codes are usually printed on paper (though other funny examples exist, T-Shirt, Mugs, Tattoo. The normal way is to use an online tool to create the code for free and then print the same way you print text. NFC tag should be purchased and usually use an NFC write application (best way is to use a mobile NFC app that can also write.

The interference – Even if there are many codes printed around in the same page, you can still aim your camera at the one you want to scan, by putting it in the view field of the camera. With NFC, tags should keep a distance  from each other.

NFC and Barcode – which is better

The differences stated above give a clear answer to the question “Who will win NFC or QR Code?” The easy answer is that each method has its advantages and disadvantages, so eventually we would predict that picking up information from newspapers, magazines, and billboards would be best served using barcodes, while services like payments at the cashier and opening doors are more likely to use NFC.

And of course, there is the million dollar question, will Apple introduce NFC into iPhone, and if so when. This could signal a boost in NFC usage. Currently, Apple says no