You may not know what a QR code is exactly, but you’ve probably seen one on a poster, magazine ad, or some other printed material. Cellphone users can simply take a picture of the black and white code, have it decoded by an application, and get redirected to a website that offers more information about whatever the code was attached to. For example, Google recently adopted QR codes as a way for customers to get more information about an establishment by linking them to the venue’s Google Places page.

Microsoft has developed a variant on QR codes called Microsoft Tag. Tag allows for intricate color designs (compared to the QR code’s blocky black and white design), the ability to hold more data, and increased analytics (a boon for advertisers).

Tags have been popping up in magazines for the past year as Microsoft worked with a select group of advertisers to test out the technology. But now it’s making Tags generally available, allowing anyone to make their own Tags via the official website. Microsoft Research has been working on the underlying technology, dubbed High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB), since 2007.

There’s a definite need for some sort of perfect solution in this space — something that will connect offline media to the web — and the door is wide open for someone to dominate. Helping Microsoft is the fact that QR codes haven’t become nearly as prevalent in the US as they have in Japan and a few other countries.

Tags are decoded via Microsoft’s software. While it would be nice to see Microsoft opening up the standard for other bar code reader applications (like QuickMark) to join in, at least the company was wise enough to offer a version for pretty much every phone platform — including iPhone, Android, Palm OS, Blackberry, and J2ME (Java) phones.

Another competing standard in this space is Data Matrix, which was adopted by the US Department of Defense. At this point, most QR code reading software also supports Data Matrix.

It remains to be seen what exactly Microsoft will do with Tag. For now, it seems the company just want to make us aware that it exists, and that it’s much prettier than the competition. Given its stylistic advantages over uglier QR codes, the promise of better analytics for advertisers, and the fact that Tags can remain legible to reader software while remaining physically smaller than QR codes, it’s very likely that Tags will soon be everywhere.

Tag was demonstrated at the last DEMO conference (which VentureBeat co-produces) in Fall 2009.