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. The CueCat was named CUE for the unique bar code which the device scanned and CAT as a play on "Keystroke Automation Technology" and 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. In this way, a user could be directed to a web page containing related information without having to enter a URL. 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.
By year-end 2001, codes were no longer available for the device and scanning with the device no longer yielded results. However, third-party software can decode the lightweight encryption in the device, allowing it to be used as a general-purpose wand-type barcode reader. The CueCat can read several common barcode types, in addition to the proprietary CUE barcodes promoted by Digital Convergence.
The CueCat patents are held by Jeffry Jovan Philyaw, who changed his name to Jovan Hutton Pulitzer after the failure of CueCat. Belo Corporation, parent company of the Dallas Morning News and owner of many TV stations, invested US$37.5 million in Digital Convergence, RadioShack $30 million, Young & Rubicam $28 million and Coca-Cola $10 million. Other investors included General Electric, and E. W. Scripps Company. The total amount invested was $185 million.
Each CueCat cost RadioShack about $6.50 to manufacture. Starting in late 2000 and continuing for about a year, advertisements, special web editions and editorial content containing CueCat barcodes appeared in many U.S. periodicals, including Parade magazine, Forbes magazine and Wired magazine. 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, Brandweek and Mediaweek also employed the technology. The CueCat bar codes also appeared in select Verizon Yellow Pages, providing advertisers with 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 magazine mailed out the first 830,000 CueCats as gifts to their subscribers since Forbes was starting to use CRQ (See Our Q Codes) in their magazine. Wired magazine mailed over 500,000 of the free devices as gifts to their subscribers. Each publisher branded the CueCat they sent to their mailing list.
Organizations that used :CRQ and :CueCat:
- WNBC New York
- KNBC Los Angeles
- WMAQ Chicago
- WCAU Philadelphia
- WFAA Dallas
- WRC Washington, DC
- WXYZ Detroit
- KHOU Houston
- KING & KONG Seattle
- WFTS Tampa
- WEWS Cleveland
- WTVJ Miami
- KTVK & KASW Phoenix
- KMOV St. Louis
- KGW Portland
- WMAR Baltimore
- KNSD San Diego
- WVIT Hartford
- WCNC Charlotte
- WNCN Raleigh
- KSHB Kansas City
- WCPO Cincinnati
- WTMJ Milwaukee
- WCMH Columbus
- KENS San Antonio
- WVTM Birmingham
- WWL New Orleans
- WVEC Norfolk
- WPTV West Palm Beach
- WHAS Louisville
- WJAR Providence
- KTNV Las Vegas
- KMPH Fresno
- KOTV Tulsa
- KVUE Austin
- KMSB & KTTU Tucson
- KPTM Omaha
- KREM & KSKN Spokane
- KTVB Boise
Installation of software and hardware, configuration, and registration took around an hour. Registration required the user's name, age, and e-mail address, and demanded completion of a lengthy survey with invasive questions about shopping habits, hobbies, and educational level. Then one could scan bar codes on groceries, bar codes on books, and custom bar codes in ads in magazines, newspapers, Verizon Yellow Pages, and RadioShack catalogs. The CRQ software then used that unique serial number from the device to return a URL which directed the user's browser to the sponsored website. It also created a permanent advertisement-displaying taskbar on the user's computers and could log the web surfing habits associated with a user's real name and e-mail address.
In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Mossberg criticized CueCat: "In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That's unnatural and ridiculous." 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. It was ranked twentieth in "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time" by PC World magazine in 2006. The CueCat's critics said the device was ultimately of little use. 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", while Debbie Barham of the Evening Standard quipped that the CueCat "fails to solve a problem which never existed". In December 2009, the popular gadget blog Gizmodo voted the CueCat the #1 worst invention of the decade of the "2000s". In 2010, Time magazine included it on a list of "The 50 worst Inventions", adding that people didn't accept "the idea of reading their magazines next to a wired cat-shaped scanner".
The CueCat device was controversial, initially because of privacy concerns of 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 data format was proprietary, and was scrambled so the barcode data could not be read as plain text. However, the barcode itself is closely related to Code 128, and the scanner was also capable of reading EAN/UPC and other symbologies, such as Priority Mail, UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-13, EAN-8, 2-of-5 interleaved, CODABAR, CODE39, CODE128, and ISBN. Because of the weak obfuscation of the data, meant only to protect the company under DMCA guidelines (like the DVD protection Content Scramble System), the software for decoding the CueCat's output quickly appeared on the Internet, followed by a plethora of unofficial applications.
The CueCat connected to computers, in the same way as a keystroke logger, as a pass-through, between the keyboard PS/2 jack and the motherboard PS/2 port (due to USB-PS/2 compatibility, USB-PS/2 adapters may be additionally used). CRQ ("see our cue"), the desktop software, intercepted the data from both the keyboard and the CueCat, before passing it on to the operating system. Versions for both Windows 32-bit or Mac OS 9 were included. 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.
Privacy groups warned that it could be used to track readers' online behavior because each unit has a unique identifier. Belo officials said they would not track individual CueCat users but would gather anonymous information grouped by age, gender and ZIP code.
In September 2000, security watchdog website Securitywatch.com notified Digital Convergence of a security vulnerability on the Digital Convergence website that exposed private information about CueCat users. Digital Convergence immediately shut down that part of their website, and their investigation concluded that approximately 140,000 CueCat users who had registered their CueCat were exposed to a breach that revealed their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. This was not a breach of the main user database itself, but a flat text file used only for reporting purposes that was generated by ColdFusion code that was saved on a publicly available portion of the Digital Convergence web server.
This failure was given a multi-citation Octopus TV "Failure Award" regarding brands that failed to take off and were hacked.
Digital Convergence responded to this security breach by sending an email to those affected by the incident claiming that it was correcting this problem and would be offering them a $10 gift certificate to RadioShack, an investor in Digital Convergence.
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.
No lawsuit was ever brought against "hackers", as this tactic was not employed to go after specific users or the hacker community, but to show "reasonable assertion" that would prevent a corporation from developing integrated software within an operating system or browser which could take over the device and circumvent the CRQ watchdog software and therefore revenue model that Digital Convergence employed.
In May 2001, Digital Convergence fired most of its 225-person workforce.
In September 2001, Belo Corporation, CueCat investor and owner of newspapers and TV stations, who sent at least 200,000 free CueCats to its readers, wrote off their $37.5 million investment, and stopped using CueCat technology with newspapers's editions, notably, The Press-Enterprise, The Dallas Morning News, and The Providence Journal
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35 4 * * * wget --quiet --no-host-directories --no-parent --convert-links --directory-prefix=/home/htdocs/cuecat/ --cut-dirs=2 --mirror http://www.logorrhea.com/cuecat/mirrors.html
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Belo's WFAA-TV in Dallas used a related technology that used electronic signals transmitted to viewers' computers if they were attached to the TV with a special cable. But readers and viewers skipped over the cues and preferred to go directly to the newspaper and TV station Web sites, said Belo senior vice president Skip Cass. Newspaper and online columnists ridiculed the CueCat as an unwieldy device that assumed people read newspapers while seated at their computer.
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Steve Forbes "'[The CueCat] will change the way you use the Internet forever The Mark: David Edmondson Title: President and COO, RadioShack Corp. Invested: $30 million Commitment: Manufactured CueCats and distributed them free at all RadioShack outlets. The Mark: Steve Forbes Title: Publisher, Forbes Invested: At least $2 million Commitment: Sent more than 800,000 subscribers CueCat and software. Quote: "[The CueCat] will change the way you use the Internet forever."
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Every time someone uses a CueCat, two things happen. First they're directed to the exact Web page that an advertiser wants them to see, delivering the equivalent of the elusive "click-throughs" that banner ads usually fail to produce. Then Digital Convergence is notified of exactly which user is visiting which page through which bar code. In this way, CueCat lets companies track not only online preferences but offline behavior as well, such as people's soft drink preferences and what magazines they read. ... The scanners cost about $6.50 a pop, and they were distributed for free to magazine subscribers and electronics store customers. But as soon as millions of gadget-loving consumers started using their new feline friends, the money would start rolling in. By now, you've already guessed the punch line: Nobody used them.
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To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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Debbie Barham, The Evening Standard; Sandra Brown Kelly, Roanoke Times & World News; Russell Shaw, Broadcasting & Cable; Sunday Times, London; Dave Plotnikoff, San Jose Mercury News; Jeff Salkowski, Chicago Tribune; David Coursey, ZDNet News; Edward Baig, USA Today; John Dorschner, Miami Herald; Walter S. Mossberg, Wall Street Journal; Richard Des Ruisseaux, Louisville Courier-Journal; Leander Kahney, Wired; Clive Thompson, Newsday;
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Reads UPC, Priority Mail, etc., barcodes Specific formats include: UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-13, EAN-8, 2-of-5 interleaved, CODABAR, CODE39, CODE128, and ISBN
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Ken Segler likes to fiddle with electronic gadgets in his spare time. So when the i-opener promised Internet access without a full-powered computer, he grabbed one and tinkered away. Soon enough, he figured out how to add a hard drive for storage, turning the $99 Internet appliance into a low-end computer that normally costs $1,000. ... Segler also took apart the CueCat, a mouse-like device that links bar codes in printed ads and catalogues with specialized Web pages. Using an X-acto knife, he disconnected a chip containing a serial number, turning the free device into a regular bar code reader that he could use without worrying about the potential for surveillance ... Digital Convergence Corp., the distributor of the CueCat, is even launching a Web site this month to encourage unofficial uses, such as cataloging CDs and books through their bar codes or linking game cartridges with online cheat sheets.
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The ambition was to make the :CueCat barcode the standard for advertising. A cat designed to work side by side with your mouse. ... To add to its woes, the feline company suffered a security leak when a tech employee left with a development computer and connected to an unsecured net connection and surprise, surprise was hacked. About 140,000 :CueCat users had their personal data stolen including their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. What was the price of privacy? Digital Convergence offered each victim a $10 gift certificate to Radio Shack.
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On Sept. 6, Belo finally ran up the white flag. In a small story on the front page of the business section, the Morning News announced it was giving up on a promotion it had hyped more than the paper's recent redesign: a device dubbed "CueCat" that read bar codes implanted in stories in the News and on sister TV station WFAA.
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Best Reference Tool - :CRQ Technology, Digital: Convergence Corp.
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Important Notice ! Once again, although we do not understand why, DigitalConvergence has contacted us regarding the CueCat project, so we are forced to take down the project page again. We are sorry for any inconvenience, and we thank you for your interest and support. We will try to update this page as soon as possible. Pierre-Philippe Coupard
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A bit of history tells a tale of what can only be described as an idea-mill going live with a high-tech gimmick in the absence of anything resembling high-tech savvy. ... They likely have too many 'concept guys' in control with too little practical, nuts-and-bolts foresight and imagination. ... Then there is the CueCat's serial number, which privacy alarmists see as a potential user-profiling weapon. ... In all, a disastrous start to a marketing concept clearly executed by greedy fools.
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