Cat scan

Sep 20, 2000 at 12:00 am
It looks like a computer mouse. It hooks up to your computer like a mouse. But it’s not a mouse. It’s a cat … at least, it resembles a cat. A squished, gray plastic toy cat. It also could be mistaken for a rat. (A plastic rat, not a real rat.)

It’s officially called the :Cuecat. And it’s basically a pint-sized bar code reader — like those used by cashiers at grocery stores. The product’s maker, a Texas-based company called Digital Convergence, says it’s a “revolutionary” device that “eliminates all the frustrating searches and sifting that comes with Internet use today.” And guess what … it’s free.

I got mine in the mail yesterday. Maybe you got one too — even if you didn’t ask for it.

“We’re giving away 10,000,000 :Cuecats by the end of the year,” says Digital Convergence vice president of communications Peter A. Eschbach via telephone from the company’s headquarters in Dallas.

Better hide your mice — the way Eschbach tells it, it’s going to be a veritable :Cuecat invasion. In addition to giving away thousands of free :Cuecats from the company’s Web site, subscribers of Net-savvy magazines such as Wired and Forbes will soon get their free unit in the mail, postage paid. And the rest of us can pick up our :Cuecats gratis at the nearest Radio Shack. To quote the curious device’s poster-sized installation instructions — “It’s that easy!”

Or is it? The brilliant idea behind the :Cuecat is that computer users would rather swipe a bar code than type in a Web address. Eschbach envisions a future world where tiny :Cuecat-enabled bar codes are printed alongside stories and advertisements in nearly every newspaper and magazine. “We’ve got a group of people out there hustling to work with as many magazines as possible,” says Eschbach. Publications such as Parade and the Dallas Morning News have already signed on, he says.

When a :Cuecat user swipes a bar code, they will be taken to what Eschbach calls “enhanced content” — an expanded Web version of a news story or, in the case of an advertisement, more info on a given product. Sounds purr-fect.

But here’s the scratch: Eschbach says, “Publications must be licensed in order to publish :Cuecat bar codes.”

In other words, even though information wants to be free online, publishing a :Cuecat bar code in print will cost you. “It’s like a razor company,” notes Eschbach, “You get the razor for free, but you keep buying blades.”

But if it’s all free to us users, why worry? Well, you might, if you care about your long-term privacy. :Cuecat users must provide a user name and e-mail, and are then asked to answer a lengthy survey of purchase behavior questions (including such pre-Napster questions as “How many CDs did you buy last month?”).

Says Eschbach, “We will never give your personal data out to anyone.” But even so, all of your :Cuecat use is tracked, and a summary of that scanning behavior is provided to advertisers. “We can tell an advertiser that 20,000 people in your ZIP code swiped their ad,” says Eschbach with enthusiasm.

In other words, whenever you use this little kitty, you’re helping big advertisers do their market research. All for the perceived convenience of not having to type into your browser.

But wait … there’s more!

The :Cuecat can also scan bar codes on real-life products — just like at the mall. That’s right … scan the bar code on a can of tomato soup and you will be taken to the soup company’s Web site.

Says Eschbach, “We’ve got a small army of servers hooking up the bar codes so that the URLs go to the right place.”

I tried it myself, and it worked … once in a while. If the :Cuecat doesn’t know where to go, yet another survey appears: “Wow, you found a code we have not yet entered” and then asks you to provide the information.

On the surface, the :Cuecat seems to promise the possibility of, well, digital convergence — where even nonvirtual products can be brought online. But in reality, the only thing extraordinary about the :Cuecat may be its unbelievably expensive product introduction. When I asked Eschbach how much it’s costing to give away so much hardware, he said simply, “We’re not discussing that right now.” But with fat cat partners such as Radio Shack and Forbes, I’m sure it’s all covered in their profit model.

Perhaps the true agenda behind the :Cuecat is revealed on Digital Convergence’s corporate home page: “(:Cuecat is) a technology that allows mainstream media to act as the filter.”

Well, good for them. But that’s not how people use the Web. Online, the user is the filter. This is really an attempt by old media to track its readers and buy some time before we all go digital.

But if the fat cats think it’ll work, they’re spitting hairballs. In this cat-and-mouse game, my money’s on the mouse. Join Adam Druckman online at, or e-mail him at [email protected]