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Microsoft Tag - Just another CueCat Failure?

Is Microsoft Tag Just a Re-Invention of a Previously Failed Product?

Background info on CueCat, in case you weren't one of the millions of people who ripped them open, disabled the tracking ID, and hooked them up to your Linux boxes: CueCat page on WikiPedia.

So now Microsoft has let their new technology, called simply Tag, out of beta and unleashed it on the public. In this blog post , Microsoft discusses the release of the technology. Basically the way it works is you point your Tag-enabled device at a Tag (which look like square pictograms, almost like a hieroglyphic random-dot stereogram). When your device recognizes the Tag and decodes it, it then links you to the content related to that tag. This could be anything from a simple string of text to a phone number or a URL of a related website.

According to various blog posts and information I've been able to dig up, Tag is in use in a couple of different places. Golf Digest is using it to link their readers to video lessons on their smart phones. Microsoft also says that visitors to Amsterdam can go on a Tag-led tour, picking up the content related to museums, landmarks, etc all by scanning Tags presumably printed on landmark signs.

Under the hood the way this works is you go to Microsoft's Tag website, sign up, and start generating tags. Once generated, you can associate whatever content you like with it. Print the tag, stick it on something meaningful, and then when a Tag-enabled mobile device scans that tag it will fetch the content for that Tag from Microsoft's Tag web service. That's right - the information about the content is not embedded in the tag. The Tag is basically a square image representation of a GUID, which is decoded by the Tag client. That GUID is then sent to the Tag service in order to fetch the appropriate related content. In short this means you're up shit's creek if you print out and place a Tag in a cellular dead zone - which isn't really all that bad since the URL related to the Tag wouldn't work anyway, even if you could look it up.

Some of you may remember the CueCat, a gadget that at one point held the dubious honor of being the #1 worst gadget of all time. Basically giant truckloads of people got these free USB barcode scanners sent to them in the mail. Once you installed the software it was great because you could scan the barcode on the back of a book and your computer would then go look up information on that book. It worked on all sorts of crap. There were privacy issues around the fact that every time you looked something up, the CueCat people stored that information so they could build trending analysis out of your scanning behavior.

So, what I want to know is - Is Microsoft Tag just a re-invention of a previously failed product? Is Tag nothing more than a mobile, image-based version of the CueCat? Possible similarities to the CueCat aside, I have seen some really interesting potential uses for this technology. Remember those ridiculous phone numbers that you used to be able to call when you drove by a house for sale (or worse, specific AM frequencies that never worked!)? Rather than sitting in your car listening to someone tell you about the house, you could walk up to the For Sale sign, scan the Tag, and get a video tour of the inside of the house right on your phone. That, is actually useful. Even better is if the content related to a Tag needs to change, it can change with easily managed websites, you don't have to go re-record some message or go out and scribble notes on the fliers getting wet below the For Sale sign.

Apparently you can also password-protect Tags if you want. This addresses some of the privacy concerns I had. The conspiracy theorist within me is of course thinking: "Microsoft now has all the content related to all of the Tags, and they know exactly when each Tag is scanned, and probably the GPS coordinates of the person who scanned it." I haven't read the EULA on Tags closely, but that worries me a little. But, this same worry is the same worry people have when moving their data into the cloud. At some point we're all going to have to suck it up, suppress our inner conspiracy theorist, and deal with it. If we want our content to be secure, then we can do it ourselves. One way is to make a content resolver on our own website, and all the content links from Tags just point to this resolver. That way, Microsoft never knows the final destination of the content.

As with many things, especially things that could potentially be used for social networks and other "hip" trendy stuff - only time will tell if it will have any sticking power. If Microsoft gets this Tag client on all of their WP7 phones, and makes some really fun and useful apps that make use of the Tag client technology, then people will start finding problems to solve with it. If Microsoft keeps this Tag stuff under wraps or, as they typically do, utterly botches the marketing of this tech, then nobody will use it because there will be little to no consumer demand for it.

p.s. I would love to see someone create some huge, elaborate video message and spray paint the Tag on a wall somewhere. Then, you could stand about 100 feet back from it, scan it on your mobile phone, and see what the artist wanted you to see :)

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.