101 uses for a dead :CueCat

The inexpensive bar-code scanner for the masses will die for our geekish sins. Good.

WE ARE, AS THE FOLKS at Digital Convergence must have expected, exactly the right kind of people to appreciate the :CueCat: We are lazy, and we like presents.

OK, so the much-heralded consumer bar-code reading wand looked like an anorexic hand scanner, bearing a stronger resemblance to an electronic toothbrush than the sphinx or any other feline animal. But it was free and it plugged right into our PCs, and rare is the geek willing to toss free hardware without at least giving it a whirl.

That's where :CueCat's troubles began. The little scanners are multiplying on America's desktops faster than the feral cats of Cairo—over a million have shipped so far according to Digital Convergence, and the company expects to have 10 million on desktops by year's end, 50 million by 2002, in the fastest technology rollout in history.

Fast is nice in the Age of Speed. However, the Titanic was pretty fast too. As the geek population lays hands upon the :CueCat, controversies ranging from security to privacy to simple performance are raining down upon the little extruded-plastic gizmos. Hackers have revealed its innards as elderly technology with suspicious chip adaptations, privacy experts are looking askance at its personal-info-gathering capabilities, and early-adopting consumers are already wondering if their personal information has been stolen thanks to a security hole discovered—but not by the company—days after the rollout.

THE GOOD NEWS IS that one of our number was among the few proud journalists to have the hassle-free installation experience that average consumers expect: Micah merely turned off his computer, plugged the :CueCat into his keyboard port, his keyboard into the :CueCat Cord, and turned his machine back on. His computer started up and a beam of red light burst forth from the "nose" of the thing, reminding him simultaneously of another famous red-nosed animal and K.I.T.T. (the car from Knight Rider)—so far so good.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in town, Angela's Win95 and Win98 laptops were united and immovable in disdain for the scanner. Thus dispirited, she went online for advice and sympathy.

Micah was now, as the endless installation routine told him, digitally converged. Eschewing the option of attaching his PC to his TV so that the Digital Convergence software might automatically "cue up" expanded content from TV shows thus enabled (none yet, though Belo-owned KING and KONG are expected to introduce such capabilities in the near future), he chose instead to try his luck with the UPC codes and special bar-code "cues" (see below) that the red-nosed kitty reads.

His first choice was a rather obscure book near at hand. It promptly took him to a Web page congratulating him on finding a product that was not in the DC database. It wanted him to enter in a bunch of information about what he'd tried to scan, which of course he didn't. (Remember, we're lazy people; if typing the URL seemed like a lot of work, the prospect of entering a UPC number and a URL was almost too much to bear.) Instead he picked up a CD and scanned the UPC symbol on the back. Pay dirt, almost—Soul Coughing took Micah directly to Warner Brother's Music main page. Next he scanned a can of Mountain Dew, which promptly took him to the Pepsi Co. home page. That's somewhat correct, but would it be so difficult to point at an official home page for a product instead of a company?

That's the bad news, or at least the tip of the iceberg of bad news, threatening the speedy :CueCat—the usefulness of the little scanner depends on (depending on your point of view) the kindness of strangers or the magnanimity of corporations. According to Michael Garin, president and COO of Digital Convergence, the current database holds about 95 percent of all UPC registrations currently available. (This doesn't jibe with Micah's scan results, which included scanning the UPC on the latest issue of 2600 magazine and ending up at a site for "Interstate Marketing Associates.")

However, the companies in the database will be listed free for just 12 months; this time next year, companies will be expected to pony up $200 for a one-year listing in the Digital Convergence database. They must also pay a little fee for every Cue they do—in other words, the more they have (like a specific URL for Pepsi-owned Mountain Dew, for instance) the more they owe. Since Digital Convergence's business plan hinges in large part on eliminating the act of surfing by linking :CueCat owners deep within a site, this database runs a distinct risk of never being as well-stocked as consumers would expect it to be.

PROFITS FROM database-listing fees are one possible profit path for the little scanner, which (being free) won't be making its money on the hardware side of the fence. There are other, darker possibilities.

As Micah blithely scanned objects in his vicinity, Angela was drowning her sorrows in the kind of online hangouts where the tech and the talk are equally tough, places where a geek will dice up a kitty-shaped scanner as soon as look at it. She fell in with a bad crowd: the kind of people that have oscilloscopes and aren't afraid to use them on defenseless computer peripherals.

A number of folks have dug into the 'Cat and found it to be a collection of fairly ordinary microcontrollers and components, some used for reading the bar codes, others for tagging scans with the ID of the scanning device. In other words, this 'Cat is your 'Cat, it is not my 'Cat, and DC knows that when the software delivers up the appropriate Web page to you. Or they'd like to—according to hardware guru and 'Cat vivisectionist Stephen Satchell, that's one of the reasons DC was incensed when various enterprising Linux folk bypassed the software-development kit DC is offering and hacked the 'Cat for themselves, in the process bypassing the wand's serial number with its own randomly generated number.

This leads, as so many things do, to lively interest from the privacy community. To their credit, DC has been tweaking their privacy policy as they garner feedback, and they claim (like, say, DoubleClick) to use the gathered data only in aggregate. However, the hardware can track individual usage; it's built that way. If an object in the world can be used a certain way, it will be sooner or later.

And yes, DC has 'Cat user information on file—and thanks to a big drafty security hole, so might someone else. A few days after Angela's failed attempt to get her 'Cat to behave, she received e-mail from DC stating that oops, her registration info may have been compromised by a security breach. Here's a $10 gift certificate for Radio Shack (one of DC's partners on the well-funded :CueCat venture). Happier now?

She was not.

Jerry Whiting, head of Seattle's Azalea Software, doesn't think Digital Convergence thought this rollout through very well; there are a number of companies forging ahead with building a better world through bar codes. The 'Cat made a stir in their offices, and Azalea released in short order a fine program for generating one's own bar codes. Whiting, author of the online FAQ on bar codes, is more infectiously enthusiastic about the stripey little things than one might believe possible; he envisions any number of applications for 'Cat-like devices, better ones, wireless ones that might assist (for instance) in complex shopping tasks such as bridal registries or in situations where data privacy is of the essence.

Angela is waiting for that bus. Her 'Cat experiences point to another problem to be expected by any company attempting a large-scale rollout: the near-impossibility of predicting what machines users are using. Mac and Linux folk are sidelined until later this year, but even PC users may well have problems: Angela, a notebook user, couldn't get the 'Cat to wake up on either her Win98-running Vaio or her trusty old Micron Win95 laptop. Noting that the readers of DC partners Forbes and Fortune are also the kind of people who like laptops, Angela wonders if installation problems aren't destined to be the norm with the :CueCat.

It came down to Micah, then—Micah, the only one of us getting the :CueCat off its extruded-plastic haunches. Though we're now both enthusiastic about the possibilities of bar codes (and intrigued by the possibility of a wireless, scan-caching version of the 'Cat expected in the near future), in the end surfing with this feline companion was like juggling with oven mitts on. In the final irony of a business tale that may indeed be one for the MBA case-study books, the best hope for the survival of the :CueCat is for people like Azalea Software and the hacker community to get a look under the hood and see if they can make it a stronger, more appealing desktop companion—and damn the Digital Convergence "business plan."

 
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