When Microsoft Was in the Barcode Game

First Published: September 16, 2023

In 2007 (or thereabouts), one of the more interesting developments in the barcode world occurred.

Seemingly out of the blue, Ballmer-era Microsoft launched the High Capacity Color Barcode – I tend to think of it as Microsoft Tag, one of its implementations.

Unlike traditional black-and-white barcodes and QR codes, the Microsoft Tag uses a palette of colors to encode data. The technology aimed to provide a more visually appealing and versatile option for linking printed material to digital content than the traditional barcodes around at the time.

The Microsoft Tag used a grid of colored triangles to represent data. These triangles can encode more data per unit area compared to traditional black-and-white barcodes, making them ideal for uses where space is limited.

A unique feature is that (unlike QR and Datamatrix codes) Microsoft Tag could be customized with logos or other visual elements without compromising scan reliability.

For a while, it looked as though these interesting barcodes might actually take off.

Several publications used them in their ads, and Microsoft claimed that a 1-inch square symbol could encode about 3,500 characters. Honestly, I have no idea if that’s true.

A gentleman by the name of Bret DaCosta even had a little business producing digital works of art based on Microsoft Tag that could be successfully scanned.

At one point, he was selling prints, and to this day, I wish I had one to hang on my office wall next to my Banksy barcode print.

Microsoft Tag Barcode Art by Bret DaCosta

The Microsoft Tag concept did have some issues that prevented it from becoming more mainstream.

Firstly, there was no way to create the tags other than on the website that Microsoft had set up expressly for that purpose.

And the only way to scan them was to download the Microsoft Tag app. As well as being inconvenient, I personally had the Microsoft app on my Dell Pocket PC, and I don’t recall if Apple and Android ever had a version (the Apple App Store opened for business in 2008).

Eventually, Microsoft got bored with Tag and bailed out in 2013 – handing the idea to ScanLife.

I think it is deceased these days.

Did you have any experience with the Microsoft Tag barcodes?

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