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New devices let users link to marketers' sites by scanning codes embedded in print advertisements

New technology tying print publications, catalogs and even the contents of supply room shelves to the Internet would seem like a perfect fit for the world of b-to-b marketing.

And it will be, its backers contend. But not before it gets a try-out in the more flashy world of consumer marketing.

Companies including AirClic, Digimarc, DigitalConvergence and GoCode have rigged up various ways to let users access Web content in a whole new way.

Though they take a variety of approaches, all of these vendors promise to let users link directly from real-world items such as the pages of magazines or newspapers to Web sites. The companies use a wide array of handheld devices that scan embedded bar codes or hidden watermarks.

This nifty technology trick not only opens the door to Internet-enabled print publications, but it also brings a level of measurement, accountability and personalization never before possible, thanks to the intimate linking of the print and Web worlds.

Earlier this month, The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, S.C., launched what is believed to be the first live use of the technology, embedding small bar codes next to articles. The codes hold URLs that transport users to Web pages when read via small, handheld scanners connected to PCs.

The print-to-Web technology is slated to get higher profile workouts later this year.

DigitalConvergence has hooked up with Forbes and Wired magazines, which will send out more than 1 million of its handheld readers--dubbeCATs, for Keyboard Automation Technology--to their readers this fall. That will let those magazines deliver Internet-enabled editorial and advertising.

DigitalConvergence has also signed a distribution deal with Tandy's Radio Shack stores, saying it will cover the costs of delivering more than 50 million devices to users by next year.

Meanwhile, Digimarc, which uses an invisible watermark and PC input devices like digital cameras in lieu of bar code readers, is kicking off its own launch. It will also have a trial run with Wired, and has reportedly convinced advertisers including Ford Motor Co., Visa USA, Sony and IBM to give the technology a try. Digimarc believes PC-connected devices like digital cameras and scanners will give it the reach it needs to serve the masses.

No b-to-b deals yet

While all of the players in this space pay lip service to b-to-b opportunities, none have announced specific deals with trade publishers or other more business-oriented partners.

"B-to-b apps for our technology will be as big or bigger than consumer applications," said Michael Garin, DigitalConvergence's president and chief operating officer. Garin said his company expects to announce within a few weeks deals with more b-to-b publishers. By partnering with the publishers to distribute CAT devices, the goal will be to achieve close to 100% market coverage of key vertical industries.

"In b-to-b, the chief thing is trying to generate leads," said Dan O'Brien, an analyst with Forrester Research. "If you can get over the behavioral challenge of getting people to use this technology, you could have the ability to get readers more quickly to a Web destination, and also have some information about where they are coming from and so forth. It has some merit."

Meanwhile, AirClic is banking on laser scanner-enabled personal digital assistants and cell-phones as its input device. By counting on tetherless devices, it believes it can not only connect newspapers and magazines to the Web, but any item that can carry a bar code, said Peter Ritz, founder and chairman of AirClic.

That opens its technology up to a wide array of b-to-b applications, from catalogs to bar-coded supply room shelves.

"We are extending the reach of the Net to real-world physical things," Ritz said.

Watermark technology

DigiMarc also sees b-to-b opportunities, but that market isn't a primary target--at least for now. The company expects to target b-to-b in the future, though.

The company's digital watermark technology adds very little extra cost for publishers, and as digital cameras and related devices proliferate, more and more users will be able to click on the content, said DigiMarc President and CEO Bruce Davis.

"There's a very real chance that traditional media will become the primary portals to the Internet," Davis said.

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