by Rick Broida, CNET contributor, author of CNET's popular Cheapskate blog
If you're not using them now, you may be soon.
Here's why -- and how to scan them in both Android and iOS.
Years ago, when QR codes arrived on the tech scene, they were heralded as not only the inevitable successor to bar codes, but also the future of information-sharing. By scanning a code, you could open a web page without typing a lengthy URL; learn more about a product; shop at virtual stores; unlock clues in video games; and so on.
And... nope. People may recognize the squiggly squares, but not many know what they're for or how to scan them. Despite their inherent value, QR codes just never caught on.
That may soon change. Here are five things you should know about QR codes, including how to scan them with your phone.
1. They're great for locating obscure apps
If you've ever purchased an off-brand drone, smartwatch or the like, you've probably needed to install some kind of companion app. Just one problem: a traditional app-store search can prove fruitless, as there are often dozens of products with similar names (and because Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store search engines suck). You could end up with the wrong app or just unable to find a match to your search query.
Fortunately, I'm noticing that many instruction manuals now include QR codes that will take you to exactly the right app. That's not only a huge time-saver, but also a sanity-saver: You'll be sure to get the app that's specifically intended for your product.
2. They can help you shop
Recently I visited my local Best Buy to shop for a refrigerator, the first large appliance I've purchased in maybe five years. I was intrigued to discover that the product card for each display model showed not only a current average user rating from online customers, but also a QR code. Why? So I could quickly access Best Buy's product page for any given model and look more closely at the specs, reviews and so on.
That's insanely handy, because the first thing I'm likely to do once I've zeroed in on a particular SKU is look it up online. It saves me the steps of pulling up Best Buy in my mobile browser, searching for the correct model and so on. Even better, it keeps me in the store, as my normal course of action would be to go home and do the research on my laptop.
3. They're great for letting guests access your Wi-Fi network
Want to let visitors access your Wi-Fi without forcing them to input a lengthy encryption key? Your router may already have a QR code on the bottom. If not, considering creating one that contains your network's SSID, password and other crucial info.
You can do this right now for Android devices by using the free QR Code Generator - WiFi Access. Just plug in the relevant data, create the code, then download the resulting PNG image. You can then print a copy to paste to your router or even just hang on the fridge.
What about iOS? Turns out this very same capability is coming in iOS 11! Read on...
4. They're coming to iOS
This hasn't been widely reported (there was no mention of it at this year's WWDC), but iOS 11 will include automated QR code-scanning. You'll just fire up the native Camera app and point it at a code; the scan will decode any embedded text and/or allow you to take action, such as visiting a web page or accessing a Wi-Fi network.
Don't want to wait? If you use Chrome for iOS and have an iPhone that supports 3D Touch, you can access QR code-scanning just by force-pressing the Chrome icon and choosing that option from the pop-up menu. Of course, there are numerous third-party scanning apps as well, same as for Android (see below).
5. You can create your own to trigger just about any action
The aforementioned router-access QR code is just the tip of the custom-code iceberg. Thanks to sites like QRstuff.com, you can create codes for a couple dozen different actions: dialing a telephone number, placing a Skype call, accessing a PayPal "buy now" link, playing a YouTube video and so on. You can even add some color to your code -- nice, given how drab they are. From there, if you're willing to pony up some cash, you can get your code custom-printed on a mug, hat, t-shirt or the like.
Scanning QR codes with Android: It's complicated (but also not)
Android lacks native support for QR code scanning, at least for now. Well, sort of. According to a Reddit thread from a few months back, you can snap a code with the Camera app, then invoke Google Now on Tap to scan that code. Some users reported success with this method; I tried it with a Nokia 6 running Android 7 and had no luck.
Fortunately, there are tons of free QR code-scanning apps available from Google Play; one solid option is the aptly named QR Code Scanner, which is both free and ad-free. If you've found an app you like better, by all means name it in the comments.