The CueCat

September 7th, 2006 by Hugh

CueCatThis is a story about a scanner device that was mentioned in an anonymous comment on this blog. I thought it was worth reading up a little more about it. It’s a failure story – but there’s always something to be learned from others’ mistakes (and your own!).

As a note to new readers, Exbiblio’s first product will be a scanner pen with a difference. It will link a paper document to its digital equivalent by means by capturing five or six words of the text. It turns out that a few consecutive words in any text are almost always unique.

CueCat was a scanner device designed by DigitalConvergence in the late 1990s (there’s a nice article about its history on Wikipedia). It read barcodes, and when plugged into a computer, it could take readers to a related page on the internet. The company mailed out free CueCats, often unsolicited. Wired Magazine gave them away. In 2000, CueCat bar codes appeared in some leading publications, including Forbes and Time. RadioShack gave away the devices and included CueCat barcodes in its catalogs.

Hackers quickly saw the CueCat might have other applications as a general barcode reader. For instance, if modified, it might be used to build a catalog of your book or CD library, or to take you to an Amazon page. The firm expanded its licence agreement to forbid such modifications, claiming that it remained the owner of the device.

The product soon ran into more controversy. Each CueCat had a unique serial number, and it was asserted that DigitalConvergence could spy on how individuals used them. The company set its lawyers on hackers who published ways to modify its product.

It all ended the way many businesses do. In 2005, a liquidator was offering 2 million CueCats at 30 cents each.

Exbiblio has a very different approach. It’s committed in its values to protecting users’ data and to generally being good (“leaving beauty in our wake”). Still, there are some interesting parallels here and lessons to be learned.

4 Responses to “The CueCat”

  1. Adam Says:

    …and our scanner is unlikely to be shaped like a cat.

    In all seriousness, I remember getting one of these with my Wired Magazine. I threw it away without ever plugging it in… It was hard for me to trust a company who’s revenue model I didn’t understand. I thought that if they were giving hardware away, then they were going to try to get my money through some other hidden means (selling my data? sending me junk mail?).

    It shows confidence in a product to charge for it. If DigitalConvergence had said that these things were $20 and I knew that others were willing to pay it, I would have placed more value on it. By giving these away with a magazine, I was getting the message that they didn’t think a large population would value it enough to go to the trouble of buying one.

    Besides, it seemed that the main utility was to aid impulse purchasing and this not something I really wanted to aid.

    Because I tossed mine, I can’t comment on the actual experience of using one. Who else remembers getting one of these? What did you think upon receiving it? Did you use it?

  2. Claes-Fredrik Mannby Says:

    I got one with WIRED as well. It came with probably over $30 worth of cables, that were supposed to be connected to TVs or VCRs, which I never saw the point of. Why would I want to plug this monstrosity into my TV so that I could get up from my seat, point a pen at the TV or something, and get ads?

    I did save mine, however, and happily found out that a simple script could take the text it outputs and convert it to a regular ISBN, which could be used to build a digital library solution and related services, for other compulsive-obsessive collectors and readers like myself.

    It was quite fascinating that the device was given away for free, and the simplest barcode readers I could find were about $150 and very sophisticated. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no easy way to offer cheap barcode readers to customers, however, so I abandoned the idea of building such solutions.

    The :CueCat definitely had a cheesy, what’s-the-scam feel to it. Lugging a pen that plugs into a PC keyboard cable around in order to make a note of a URL didn’t seem like a solution to any real problem, either.

    I actually have my :CueCat plugged in and active at home, but I never use it, because I found that a service called LibraryThing makes it trivial to add books from my library to a database without barcode scanners, UPCs, ISBNs, or even the iSight-with-4-toothpicks-and-rubber-bands solution that Delicious Library used to suggest, as a joke. You simply type a few words from the title, click on the correct item, and off you go to the next one.

    One ironic aspect of the Exbiblio vision is that, by realizing that text itself is a unique identifier, by bridging the gap between printed and digital worlds without modifying the printed material, it could actually eventually provide a reason for publishers to enrich their content with special markers, such as the :CueCat required in order to work at all.

  3. Hugh Says:

    It is a pity that the CueCat was not made out of pasta, then at least it would have degraded gracefully.

  4. Adam Says:

    I took a look on Technorati to see what other bloggers were saying about CueCat. Seems like there is a lot of negative vibe still in people’s minds about this product. It even makes PC World’s “25 Worst Tech Products of All Time”

    I wonder if it is going to be difficult for Exbiblio to get out from under this cloud, since the products are similar in some ways?

    It doesn’t seem that the barcodes or the hardware where actually the problem with the CueCat but rather the fact that it was focussed on an activity that was already easy to do, tracked users data in a way that could be exploited (and eventually was), and was controlled by a company that strictly enforced what users could and could not do with the device.

    For Exbiblio to succeed where CueCat didn’t, we will have to present a better value proposition, protect privacy at all levels, and allow the user community to use the product in ways we can’t currently imagine. (IMHO)