CueCat

CueCat

The CueCat, styled :CueCat with a leading colon, is a cat-shaped handheld barcode reader that was given away free to Internet users starting in 2000 by the now-defunct Digital Convergence Corporation. It enabled a user to open a link to an Internet URL by scanning a barcode — called a ‘cue’ by Digital Convergence — appearing in an article or catalog or on some other printed matter.

The company asserted that the ability of the device to direct users to a specific URL, rather than a domain name, was valuable. In addition, television broadcasters could use an audio tone in programs or commercials that, if a TV was connected to a computer via an audio cable, acted as a web address shortcut.

The CueCat connected to computers using the PS/2 keyboard port and USB, and communicated to desktop software running on Windows 32-bit and Mac OS 9 operating systems. Users of this software were required to register with their ZIP code, gender, and email address. This registration process enabled the device to deliver relevant content to a single or multiple users in a household. By year-end 2001, Codes could no longer be generated for the device or scanned with the device. However, third-party software can decode the lightweight encryption in the device.

Starting in late 2000 and continuing for over a year, advertisements, special web editions and editorial content containing CueCat barcodes appeared in many U.S. periodicals, including ‘Parade,’ ‘Forbes,’ and ‘Wired.’ The ‘Dallas Morning News’ and other Belo-owned newspapers added the barcodes next to major articles and regular features like stocks and weather. Commercial publications such as ‘AdWeek’ also employed the technology.

The CueCat bar codes also appeared in select Verizon Yellow Pages, providing advertisers a link to additional information. For a time, RadioShack included these barcodes in its product catalogs and distributed CueCat devices through its retail chain to customers at no charge. ‘Forbes’ mailed out the first 830,000 CueCats as gifts to their subscribers. ‘Wired’ mailed over 500,000 of the free devices as gifts to their subscribers.

The immediate critical response was extremely negative. In ‘The Wall Street Journal,’ Walter Mossberg wrote that the device ‘fails miserably. Using it is just unnatural.’ He concluded that the CueCat ‘isn’t worth installing and using, even though it’s available free of charge.’ Joel Spolsky, a computer technology reviewer, also criticized the device as ‘not solving a problem’ and characterized the venture as a ‘feeble business idea.’

The CueCat is widely described as a commercial failure. Investors in CueCat lost $185 million. It was listed as one of ‘The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time’ by ‘PC World’ magazine. Joe Salkowski of the ‘Chicago Tribune’ wrote, ‘You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can.’ In 2005, a liquidator offered two million CueCats for sale at $0.30 each (in quantities of 500,000 or more).

The CueCat device was also controversial because of privacy concerns and its collecting of aggregate user data. Each CueCat has a unique serial number, and users suspected that Digital Convergence could compile a database of all barcodes scanned by a given user and connect it to the user’s name and address. For this reason, and because the demographic market targeted by Digital Convergence was unusually tech-savvy, numerous websites arose detailing instructions for ‘declawing’ the CueCat — blocking or encrypting the data it sent to Digital Convergence. Digital Convergence registered the domain ‘digitaldemographics.com,’ giving additional credence to privacy concerns about the use of data.

The company’s response to these hacks was to assert that users did not own the devices and had no right to modify or reverse engineer them. Threats of legal action against the hackers swiftly brought on more controversy and criticism. The company changed the licensing agreement several times, adding explicit restrictions, apparently in response to hacker activity. Hackers argued that the changes did not apply retroactively to devices that had been purchased under older versions of the license, and that the thousands of users who received unsolicited CueCats in the mail had neither agreed to nor were legally bound by the license.

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