In Japan i-nigma is the de facto standard QR Code reader having been embedded in over 180 million handsets. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Mendy Mendelsohn, CEO of 3GVision the company responsible for this achievement. Here is the interview in full:
RS: Mendy thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start with something about 3GVision and how you got involved?
MM: Yossi Lev (our CTO) and I founded 3GVision in 2000. Our initial vision was to provide image recognition technologies for the then-nascent mobile cameraphones. We have developed several such technologies – e.g. document scanning, OCR, face recognition, motion tracking, and of course barcode decoding – all in-house, tailored to the camera quality, CPU and memory limitations of cameraphones. At the IT bubble burst, it was clear that Japan was the only market where 3G and cameraphones were actually about to happen, so we concentrated our efforts there. The first fully blown commercial launch of our barcode decoder was in 2002, and since then we have enjoyed an overwhelming leadership in the Japanese market together with our first and best partner, MEDIASEEK. Since 2006 we have been offering an end-to-end barcode management platform, better known as i-nigma.
RS: How does i-nigma fit into the mix?
MM: Our i-nigma offering includes several products. The i-nigma barcode management platform / dashboard, that allow customers to create, manage, track and provide extensive reporting of mobile barcode services. The i-nigma barcode reader application supported on more than 500 handset models, that our customers make freely available to their end users through the http://i-nigma.mobi download site. And the i-nigma SDK, available for all mobile platforms, allowing mobile developers to easily add the barcode scanning feature to their custom-made applications.
RS: When you say it is free for your customer’s end users the i-nigma reader is actually free for everyone isn’t it?
MM: i-nigma is free for the end users, but it is not free for commercial use. So while end users may download and use i-nigma freely, enterprises need to agree with us on terms that will allow them to refer their customers to i-nigma.
RS: Can you give us some idea of the i-nigma user base in Japan and throughout the world? Presumably you have seen a large increase in downloads throughout 2010 as QR Codes come to the West?
MM: In Japan, the vast majority of handsets hit the market with an embedded barcode reader. Out of those, some 80-85% are based on i-nigma technology. The total number of Japanese handsets that embedded our technology is well above 180 million. Outside Japan, more than 15 million handsets have either pre-installed or downloaded our readers. On the usage side, we are indeed seeing a huge increase. Comparing October to November, for example, we see a 25% increase in hits worldwide, 25% increase in the States, 60% increase in Germany, and 100% increase in France and in Canada. Comparing November to July, we see a 150% increase worldwide. The outlook is also bright, as we experience a similarly significant increase in business requests.
RS: You mentioned the i-nigma SDK, can you give us some examples of the kind of applications that have been developed?
MM: Sure. A fast-food chain in Spain uses an i-nigma based application to redeem coupons in their 120 restaurants. A large retailer uses another i-nigma based application to scan and track prices at competitors’ shops. A third customer uses an i-nigma based application to credit sales personnel and simultaneously manage their perfume stock at a drugstore chain.
RS: As interest in QR Codes develops outside Asia a number of QR Code management systems seem to have appeared. What’s the unique selling point for i-nigma dashboard?
MM: Field tested by top operators, publishers, brands and service providers. Intuitive user experience and detailed reporting, including by number of unique users. Longest track record in mobile barcode services. Stable management and staff committed to successful long-term relationships.
RS: It is interesting that you should say “including unique users”. Does this mean you have to ID each individual i-nigma download and recover the ID when a scan is performed? How do you actually do that? Does every i-nigma download have an ID or only the ones for commercial use?
MM: Well, your readership did express particular interest in this point… Each i-nigma based reader has its own unique ID, which is reported to our servers on every scan. We never collect, let alone store, any personal data about the user, as does some of our competition. And we use these IDs in our reports only to distinguish them from each other, never on individual basis.
RS: Yes it is true, I get a lot of email on reader and privacy issues! So let’s get this straight. No personal information is collected when a user downloads i-nigma. Each time a user scans a code it is reported to your servers. Just to be clear, does this mean that if for example a QR Code containing a URL is scanned with i-nigma that there are two http requests, one to the URL and one to your servers?
MM: This is pretty much equivalent to what we’re doing, we just do this so the user doesn’t suffer from extra wait or traffic charges.
RS: So what information is sent to your servers? As you said the i-nigma unique ID but what else? Details of the other http request?
MM: Exactly: UID, URL or barcode; date & time, IP number, phone model. Basically what is needed for comprehensive aggregate reporting without compromising the individual’s privacy.
RS: OK one last question on the privacy issue. Let’s say one of your commercial client’s runs a campaign with a QR Code that resolves to a landing page on their website with a special offer. Let’s also say that the special offer requires some form of registration like email address and name. Is your client able to associate this information with the i-nigma unique ID? If commercial clients can do this then presumably it would be possible for them, over a period of time, to determine a specific individual’s scanning behavior pattern?
MM: I’m not sure I understand the problem here. In your example, the end-user practically logs in to the client’s site, so the client can easily determine the individual’s behavior in the site – regardless of whether the end-user scanned a mobile barcode to get there. In any event, just to clarify – 3GVision’s commitment is to never provide a client with the end-user’s private data – scanning behavior included.
RS: Thank you that is very interesting. Before I ask you about the future of the technology I have an observation on which I would like to hear your comments. I know that your company is active in attending conferences and trade shows but it appears to me that you are conspicuously inactive on the social networks. You have all that great data about world wide activity levels and your commercial client experiences will have given you insight into all the best practices. It’s a good story so why aren’t you leveraging the social networks to build the 3GVision brand?
MM: It would be difficult to dispute your observation – and thank you for offering your stage to improve on this point… I dare say 3GVision and especially i-nigma have come a long way since being “the industry’s best kept secret”, as a dear friend of ours fondly put it. Still, the blanket is never wide enough and we must constantly manage our priorities. Where the options are quality service VS extra online boasting, we prefer the former. I believe this is the most important thing in the long run.
RS: This is where I ask you to make a few predictions based on your experience! How do you see 2d barcode technology and its use developing in the West in the near and long term and what evolving technology might replace them?
MM: Needless to say that the market seems as bullish as it ever was. With smartphones becoming ubiquitous and the huge growth in mobile data usage, all the stars are aligned for rapid acceptance of barcode based services. As to potentially disruptive technologies such as RFID and image recognition, I see them mostly as complementary rather than competitive to barcodes.
RS: Thank you Mendy for the interview, it was very interesting and I am sure 2d-code readers will find it interesting too.
MM: Thank you for your great blog, Roger. You managed to create a first class source of objective reporting and discussion, which is a joy to follow. I’d like to wish you and your readership a fabulous 2011 from all of us at 3GVision.