Viewpoint: Net bar code gizmo could well be a costly mistake

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Given the right bait, can Web users be lured into providing advertisers with personal information that chiefly benefits the marketer? That's the dubious gamble Digital:Convergence Corp. is taking with CueCat, a vaguely feline-shaped device that looks more like a squished plastic computer mouse. But it's not a mouse and it doesn't click. Instead, said Digital:Convergence, the CueCat is a "revolutionary" tool that "eliminates all the frustrating searches and sifting that comes with Internet use today."


Actually, CueCat is merely a bar code reader--like the ones cashiers use at the local minimart. Even so, Digital:Convergence is betting the farm on this little kitty.

"We're giving away 10 million CueCats by the end of the year," said Digital:Convergence VP-Communications Peter A. Eschbach. Listening to Mr. Eschbach preach, it's easy to imagine a nation overrun with the critters: Subscribers to Net-savvy magazines such as Forbes and Wired already have received freebie felines via U.S. mail; everyone else can order one online ( or grab one gratis at the local RadioShack.

Of course, you might decide, like I have, that the CueCat's premise--that Net users would rather swipe a code than type in a Web address--is severely misguided.

When a CueCat users swipe a printed code, they're taken to what Mr. Eschbach called "enhanced content"--a longer version of a story online or, in the case of an advertisement, Web-enhanced product information. He envisions a future in which CueCat-enabled bar codes are nested inside stories and advertisements in nearly every newspaper and magazine. Publications such as The Dallas Morning News and Parade have signed on.

Sounds purr-fect, but here's the rub: CueCat users must provide a user name and an e-mail address, and their every swipe is tracked. An aggregate version of each user's scanning behavior is provided to interested advertisers. Said Mr.

Eschbach: "We will never give your personal data out to anyone." Still, as customers have learned, such promises can be broken. Amazon's recently revamped privacy statement opens that possibility should the company be sold.

But wait, there's more. "Publications must be licensed in order to publish CueCat bar codes," Mr. Eschbach said. In other words, information is free, but printing a CueCat bar code will cost the publishers that use it. "It's like a razor company," noted Mr. Eschbach. "You get the razor for free, but you keep buying blades."


Digital:Convergence is setting itself up for a remarkably expensive failure. It doesn't matter that the CueCat is free; adding the bar codes is not for publishers. Without compelling content, Web users simply won't be bothered to install such a clunky device. They also don't want to drag bulky newspapers and magazines to their PCs when they can just type a simple URL. Smart Netizens already know where to find enhanced online content--on any forward-thinking publication's Web site. It also took me several swipes to get CueCat to read the URL.

Perhaps the biggest problem with CueCat, however, is Digital:Convergence's rather obvious motivation--to measure print readership with Weblike precision. That's fine as long as each reader feels the privacy trade-off is worth the price of admission.

But curiosity that doesn't offer users something valuable in return is doomed to fail. And we all know what happened to the curious cat.

Adam Druckman is editor of, the Web site of Detroit alternative weekly Metro Times.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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