Remember QR Codes? Well they’re the future…again

Hacker News and Reddit have very different user audiences but each have their share of ‘my experience is the world’ navel gazers. This is a plus: the comments are fascinating to read. The Andreessen Horowitz site posted a piece by Avery Segal, Remember QR Codes? They’re More Powerful Than You Think. Somebody posted it to Hacker and somebody else posted a link to my Transit Gate Evolution piece in the comments. I think it’s hilarious and insightful that somebody can look at the same QR code transit video in the piece and write, “The QR code video shows a ton of people going through the turnstiles quite fast.” A ton? Fast? I guess the commentator never experienced rush hour Shinjuku station gates.

Segal’s piece is a simple Mainland China travelog highlighting all the things people can do with a WeChat/Alipay account and WeChat Pay/Alipay integrated QR Code smartphone apps there. There is very little analysis and the opening paragraph reads more like PR, which it probably is. After all, Andreessen Horowitz is a venture capital firm though I can’t figure out if Segal is trying to sell WeChat/Alipay or QR.

Companies in the US have been slow to adopt QR codes, but those who dismiss them as having “been around forever but never taken off” underestimate their wide-ranging potential. Camera-based solutions like QR codes (or facial recognition, for that matter) can make traditionally clunky user experiences seamless and intuitive. QR codes connect our online identity to the offline world, allowing users to essentially log in to physical locations—and bring their data with them. This delivers a number of benefits: brands learn user preferences, while customers gain a more tailored and social experience, as well as perks like automatic loyalty programs built into every transaction.

The Hacker News crowd discusses the pros and cons of QR vs NFC, but I think that they along with Segal completely miss the point: it’s not the technology, it’s the service layers built on top of it and how well they integrate that really matters. Actually it’s the only thing that matters.

The Suica example. FeliCa is great NFC technology but nothing great by itself: the Suica card format built with FeliCa, the nationwide Transit IC card inter-compatibility built around the Suica card format, the Transit IC eMoney standard built on top of that, Mobile Suica, Apple Pay…each new service layer builds on the previous layers and adds value to the whole. The value is the quality of integration, a sum greater than the total of parts.

There are multiple layers in Apple Pay Suica but they all work as one.

The Transport for London Oyster card by comparison is not compatible with other UK transit cards. Oyster can be used for transit in the London pay as you go area (but reaching its limit) but does not integrate with anything else. TfL has put effort into EMV contactless bank cards for transit instead of developing new services and growing Oyster, but it’s interesting to ponder what the UK could have built by following a Suica-like transit platform business model.

China is a very different country and transit infrastructure isn’t a business. I’m sure that Alipay and WeChat Pay were allowed on host their QR code services on ‘public infrastructure’ because it also benefits the Chinese Communist Party in some way and helps the CCP steer society where it thinks it should go.

There is another important aspect that Segal and the Hacker crowd fail to see or discuss: central processing vs. local processing. The whole point of Transit Gate Evolution was explaining the Apple Pay Suica secret: a great local processing front-end (FeliCa/NFC-F/Suica) integrated with a great central processing back-end (Mobile Suica + Apple Pay EMV credit/debit cards). Segal assumes that central processing is everything and that the internet, mobile networks and cloud services are always going to work everywhere 100% of the time. They don’t.

Nobody talks about the implications of NFC tag Apple Pay that Apple is already field testing either. These topics would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately nobody seems up to the challenge.

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