QR Codes & MS Tags: What are they & how do you read them?


Written by: Brad Maulucci

Two-dimensional (2D) barcodes, also known as smart tags, QR (for Quick Response) codes, MS tags and the like, seem to be popping up everywhere: store shelves, print ads, newspapers, even outdoors on sidewalks and billboards. These fancy-looking barcodes will likely only become more prevalent as more users adopt smartphones capable of interacting with the codes, and businesses further experiment with new placements.

But what are these codes, how do they work, and why should you care? First, some history. The black and white QR code came along first in 1994. It was created by a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Company as a way to track vehicles and vehicle parts during the manufacturing process. It was intended as an “open source” system, meaning the technology could be used and replicated by others free of charge and without licensing concerns.

Perhaps the next-biggest player in the 2D barcode market is Microsoft’s MS Tags. MS Tags have been around for a much shorter time (since 2009) and as such, have not quite seen the same adoption rate as QR tags. MS Tags are proprietary, meaning only Microsoft software can create and scan them. The software is currently free to use and includes robust metrics tracking.

2D codes can be used to help move customers from impression to interaction with a brand (or individual!) using smartphones. When scanned with the proper reader on a smartphone, the code can open a website, play a video, show a map, or even automatically update your address book with the contact details from a business card.

Readers are free to download. If you have a smartphone, I encourage you to download a reader if one is not pre-loaded on your phone and start scanning! It can become almost addictive. I’d suggest downloading a QR reader such as ScanBuy or RedLaser, and Microsoft’s MS Tag reader, available at http://tag.microsoft.com/download.aspx. There are other, more specialized codes and their appropriate readers.

Be sure to read part 2: 5 Tips for creating your own QR code.

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About Karin Khuhro

Karin Khuhro is a Digital Marketing Strategist, Speaker and Copywriter. As the owner of Strategy E-ssentials she works with other savvy marketers, digital specialists and business leaders to bring knowledge, know-how and solutions to small and medium sized businesses. Connect with Karin on Google+ or Linkedin.


  1. There’s been a bunch of articles recently about how QR codes are already on their way out before they’ve had a chance to really get big in this country (apparently they have been very popular and useful in Japan and Europe for a few years), especially with improvements in visual scan software for google and iphone. However, I don’t think these people really realize the flexibility and creativity these codes have. Sure I can scan a Coke can to bring me to Coke’s main website but the QR codes will allow for going to subpages and landing pages for ongoing and even temporary campaigns.

    They have enormous benefits for retail — take a look at Home Depot and Best Buy who have them all over their stores. In the case of Home Depot, I can use my phone to scan the barcode to get pricing and basic specs but if I snap the QR code on a plant for sale it will take me to a page where I can get deeper information on caring for that plant. Companies could use tiny URLs instead of QR codes but these can take away from branding and can still be cumbersome. Personally I like having to limit the amount of typing I do on my phone.

    Although more and more people are getting smartphones, opening up the audience for QR codes, there may continue to be a problem with expanding use because of standardization. There have been some problems with some software readers not being able to read all codes or having different capabilities.

    So much more can be done with them that have only scratched the surface.

    • Kevin,
      I agree we have only touched the surface of what QR codes are capable of. I find it frustrating that so many QR codes are used with the advertiser in mind, NOT the customer. I believe we’re still stuck in the “cool shiny object” stage. However, more important than the cool factor is the misuse of codes to push silly advertising and marketing that the customer doesn’t really want. When QR codes are used for things that the customer wants, rather than what the advertiser wants, we will have something to talk about. We are at a stage where QR codes and the like must prove their VALUE, not just be cool.