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Microsoft tries to reinvent the bar code

Like a modern-day CueCat, Microsoft's Tag technology uses a cell phone camera to read bar codes linking printed materials to online content.

REDMOND, Wash.--Remember the CueCat--the quirky bar code reader that was going to connect magazine readers with digital material?

Well, apparently Microsoft does too. And while the CueCat meowed into obscurity, the software maker thinks that the idea made sense--that is, using a digital scanner to link printed materials with online content.

You can think of Microsoft Tag as CueCat 2.0, though this time, it doesn't require a special device. Instead, Microsoft tags use a cell phone camera for scanning the bar code, and the digital content can pop up right there on the phone.

Over the past year, Microsoft tags have started showing up in magazines and newspapers. Tags can also be placed on business cards, products, and even large outdoor signs.

"It's the hyperlink in the physical world," said Marja Koopmans, marketing leader for Microsoft's start-up accelerator unit.

Tags can link to anything from a Web page to an online brochure or electronic business card (see video below). Golf Digest magazine, for example, uses tags to link directly to YouTube videos that can be viewed on an iPhone or other smartphone. That allows the magazine to, essentially, include not just how-to articles, but also instructional videos within its publication.

Reading the tags requires users to download a small bit of software onto their phone, though Microsoft has wisely decided to support a variety of phones, from basic Java phones to smartphones, including Windows Mobile devices, BlackBerrys, and even iPhones.

The Tag effort started in Microsoft's research labs a couple of years ago but has now moved into the start-up unit that houses some of Microsoft's most nascent businesses.

Because advertisers and publishers can set up tags on their own, Microsoft's Tag team is incredibly small.

"You're looking at 50 percent of it," Koopmans said during an interview with her and one colleague.

Rather than devote a lot of resources to selling people on using Tag, Microsoft has made the technology freely available and encourages people to try it for themselves. The downside is that Microsoft doesn't always always know who is using the tags--or how.

Many of the uses, though, have filtered back to the team in Redmond. For example, Koopmans said she knows that tags have been used in everything from magazines to an Italian yellow pages to Amsterdam tram stations.

The business model, though, is a little unclear. Microsoft doesn't charge for the reader or for companies that want to create a tag.

"We believe the basic services we provide now are going to be free," Koopmans said. Down the road, she says, Microsoft may charge for more advanced services. "We're not a philanthropic institution," she added.