Last week I saw the freakiest thing to come out of Redmond since the original Microsoft/Timex Data Link watch in 1995. The weird thing about the Data Link was how you transferred data to it: You'd hold the gizmo up to your CRT monitor, the screen would go dark, and a sequence of rapidly flashing lights would download your calendar and contact info while secretly programming your brain to assassinate the president.
[Note to readers: I'm making a Manchurian Candidate joke here (the original, not the remake). I bear no ill will toward President Obama. Please do not alert the Secret Service.]
Redmond's newest bit of freakiness is called Microsoft Tag, and at first glance it looks almost ordinary. Each Tag consists of a box featuring 50 multicolored triangles, or enough to hold about 100 bits of data. Essentially it's a barcode with a Ph.D. But it has the potential to Web enable anything - and I do mean anything - using just your cell phone camera.
You start by downloading the free Tag application to your phone by visting Gettag.mobi. Besides Windows Mobile phones, the software is available for the iPhone, Blackberry, Symbian phones, and any handset OS based on J2ME.
By snapping a picture of a Tag - or in some cases merely hovering over the image until it fills the target area displayed on your viewfinder -- your phone will do whatever the Tag tells it to do. That can include launching a URL, dialing a phone number, downloading a V-card to your address book, or displaying a text message instructing you to assassinate the president. (See joke, above.) You can also password-protect tags, so only folks in the know can unlock the data they hold.
Creating Tags is equally easy. First, you'll need a Windows Live ID to log into the Tag management Web page. From there, it's a matter of filling out a form with some information telling the Tag what you want it to do, then rendering it as a PDF file. Total elapsed time to create a simple Tag: about 30 seconds.
You can print out Tags and stick them to any object. Want to turn your toaster into a hyperlink? Slap a Tag on it. Want to promote your band's latest gig? Put Tags with your MySpace URL on stickers and plaster them all over town. The Tags will even work displayed on any screen - like a TV set or the one you're looking at now.
If you point your cell phone cam at the Tag displayed above (and you've got the Tag app installed and running on your handset) it should launch my Tynan on Tech blog on your phone's browser. The one right below contains a secret message for my devoted readers (all 12 of them).
Go ahead, try it. I'll wait.
Freaky, ain't it?
Microsoft Tag launched with almost no publicity back at CES, says product manager Aaron Getz, and six weeks later there were already more than 25,000 tag creation accounts. Companies like General Mills have been using Tags on product coupons to track the success of marketing campaigns. Imagine pointing your cell cam at a business card to upload the contact data printed on it, or at a movie poster to watch a trailer of the film on your phone. The number of potential uses is limitless.
When people talk about the "Internet of things," they're usually referring to so-called "smart" devices or those with RFID tags embedded. But applications like Microsoft Tag bring connectivity to a whole new level. They have the ability to turn the entire analog world into an infinite series of hyperlinks.
Is that a good thing? I'm not entirely sure yet. But it's sure got my head spinning.