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Zombie tech! Why QR codes, Bluetooth, and RFID still aren’t dead

McGarryBowen New York president Angela Johnson explains why some left-for-dead tech has seen a resurgence this year.

Zombie tech! Why QR codes, Bluetooth, and RFID still aren’t dead
[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Leuthard]

You know that part in every slasher movie when the audience thinks the killer is dead, but he somehow revives himself for a final try? That’s kind of how some technologies work.

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Take QR codes. Just a few years ago, Quick Response codes were an industry laughing stock. The humor came from the fact that it was often easier to type in a URL than to line up your smartphone camera to read those little black and white matrix barcodes. Plus, there was the challenge of trying to make them work in ads and marketing materials without being a distraction.

After most of us had written off QR codes, Snapchat gave them a boost of cool by launching QR-based Snapcodes, which make it easier for people to follow you on Snapchat. Lo and behold, at Advertising Week earlier this month, it felt like 2011 again as everyone was rocking QR codes. Amazon, Google, and Instagram have all contracted QR Fever. QR codes are showing up everywhere from the meat aisle of the supermarket to the stock exchange. And this is good news to users: They’re easier to read now, and rather than inevitably leading to another brand promotion, they often provide helpful information such as where your food comes from.

The reappearance of QR made me realize that too many of us are like the medieval mortician in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: eager to jump to conclusions about a technology’s mortality. Beware, there’s a good chance that a technology pronounced dead isn’t. It often takes tech a while to find its niche, but when it does, it’s suddenly useful and ubiquitous.

Technology’s unpredictable path

The conventional wisdom is that we adopt technologies at a much faster rate than ever before. It took 30 years for electricity to reach 10% of the market, for instance, but smartphones achieved 40% penetration in 10 years.

Not every technology has the significance of electricity and smartphones. Many kick around for years. Tablets, for instance, have existed in one form or another since the early 1990s. The Apple Newton launched in 1993, but is perhaps most famous for being the butt of jokes in the Doonesbury comic strip. Microsoft introduced its Tablet PC in 2001 to an indifferent public. It wasn’t until Apple reintroduced the tablet, this time as the iPad in 2010, that it finally took off.

Similarly, while everyone predicted in the early 2000s that we’d soon be watching smart TVs, that never happened. Instead, most of us jury-rigged our dumb TVs with devices such as Roku and Apple TV to become internet-ready. Despite years of rumors, Apple hasn’t created an “iTV” as intuitive as an iPhone.

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Years ago, sociologist Everett Rogers introduced a five-part model that mapped out the adoption of innovations. The path runs from innovators to early adopters, then the early majority to the late majority and, finally, laggards. More recently, industry watchers observed that early adopters and early majority latch on quickly, but at that point, things either take off or they don’t. Often they don’t, and the graph looks like a shark’s fin with a huge spike up front and then a sharp falloff.

While that may be true of so-called “Big Bang Disruptors” such as Microsoft Kinect, I’ve noticed that faddish tech such as Bluetooth, RFID, and QR codes wallow in what Gartner calls the “trough of disillusionment” for years, eventually to reemerge when someone finds an application that can capture users’ attention.

The year of Zombie Tech

It looks like 2018 will amount to a banner year for Zombie Tech. Bluetooth is so kludgy that some people don’t bother pairing their phones with rental cars because it’s too much trouble (side note: that’s actually a good move). But Tommy Hilfiger is experimenting with Bluetooth-tagged clothing and retailers are giving Bluetooth beacons another go to compete with Amazon Go. Even RFID, a been-there-done-that technology, has resurfaced as retailers attempt to keep better track of what’s on their shelves. It’s a boon to retailers that realize to fight back against Amazon, they need to make navigating their stores easier and keep better track of their inventory.

Alas, some initially head-turning technologies are still stuck in the trough of despair. Despite all the hype and support from Apple and Google, few people are using their phones to buy anything except Starbucks coffee. In the U.S., less than 1% of purchases occur via mobile phones. Google Glass and other head-mounted technologies appear to be in limbo until further notice, too.

In his book The Change Function, Pip Coburn posited that for a technology to be successful, it has to confront a “user crisis,” but in a way in which the pain of adopting the new technology makes up for the crisis.

For QR codes, the crisis was small–users merely had to type a few letters and symbols into a browser to reach a website. The solution didn’t make up for the crisis because QR code readers weren’t readily available, and having to download one added to the pain. Snapchat including a QR reader into its app simplifies the process and offers a useful and fun application for the codes.

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That’s why it’s a bad idea to write off any dismissed technology. Chances are, even if its introduction was disappointing, someone will find a unique way to resurrect a technology that others were eager to write off.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google Glass comes back in some iteration in the 2020s, or if someone figures out a way to pay with your phone that improves on the seconds-long process of pulling out your credit card. Getting a sense of which technologies are waning and which are coming back requires a close read on the market–and strong communication with your agency partner.

No matter how ridiculous they may seem when originally introduced, Zombie Technologies have a way of reanimating themselves. Except for Second Life. That one’s not coming back.

Angela Johnson is president of the agency McGarryBowen New York.

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