A scanner darkly

Can Wired's CueCat giveaway turn us into a nation of bar-code-reading clerks?

Topics: Advertising,

Before the public embraces innovation, it sometimes needs prodding. Companies that want to jump-start the adoption of some new technology are increasingly tempted to just give away their gizmo — particularly if their business model is built more upon amassing troves of consumer information than upon selling hard goods.

Giving hardware away can get users to take a chance on something they might not be willing to pay for. But it also risks leaving the impression that the technology is worth zilch.

That, I think, is the conclusion large numbers of Wired subscribers will draw when they open their mailboxes this month and confront the magazine’s little gift to them: a 4-inch, hand-held bar code scanner called the CueCat.

You plug the CueCat into your PC. Then, as you read your copy of Wired and see ads and articles (but mostly ads) that have special bar codes, you’re supposed to run your CueCat over the codes, and it will tell your Web browser where to go online for more information.

Designed with consumer-friendly cuteness to look like a little kitty, the CueCat is, according to its parent company’s Web site, “the biggest computer innovation since the mouse” — “like a global positioning system for the Internet.”

Let’s see: The mouse helped usher in an era of graphical computing, allowing millions of people who might otherwise find command-line navigation forbidding to take advantage of the personal-computer revolution. And the CueCat? Well, if it ever achieves mouselike market penetration — an extraordinarily unlikely scenario — it will allow millions of people who might otherwise simply point and click their way across the Web to … find Web pages by running their scanners over bar codes in magazines and other marketing material.

Somehow this revolution eludes me.

Even if the CueCat were a cinch to install and worked with rock-solid reliability, there are a million problems with this concept. One reason we still read paper magazines is that we don’t have to sit at our computers to do so — so why would we want a device to chain us to our computers while we flip pages? (And if you’re going to suggest that we plug our CueCats into our notebook computers, beware the sheaf of technical notes that comes with the device warning of problems hooking it up to laptops, and remember that you still need to be connected to the Net for the whole thing to work.)

How huge is the problem CueCat addresses, anyway? Is it that hard to find a company’s home page on the Web? If a company wants a magazine ad to drive traffic to its Web site, what’s more reasonable for it to expect consumers to do: Type “www.companyname.com” into their browsers, or laboriously install the CueCat and its software and scan a bar code?

In any case, as you’ve probably guessed, the CueCat does not work as advertised. The installation routine is a bear: First you have to plug in the device by inserting the CueCat’s cable between your keyboard and your computer; then you must sit through endless video footage that rolls clunkily off the installation CD-ROM; then, if you’re not careful, you’ll be confronted with endless screens of survey questions designed to nail you down as a marketing target.

After countless cutesy messages like “You are now 66% digitally converged,” you think you’re done. But it seems that the whole video installation routine wasn’t the real installation, and you still have to go through a more traditional software installation, which asks you yet again to fill in your name, ZIP code and gender. Are we done yet? No: If you actually want to use your CueCat, you must now wait for an e-mail sent by the company so you can plug an authentication code into the software to activate it.

I make a point of trying to test-drive any technology before writing about it, but if I hadn’t had that motive, I’d have canceled the CueCat installation long before this point. After more than an hour of labor, my CueCat finally glowed red, and at last I was ready to scan.

For my first experiment, an Altoids ad on the back cover of Wired beckoned me. I scanned, I waited, Netscape paused — and served up the following message from CueCat central: “Wow! You found a code we have not yet entered! Please take a moment to tell us about it.”

Subsequent scans failed to nudge my browser at all in any direction, even after a reboot.

Wired, for all its management changes and its turbulent history, remains a magazine I find worth subscribing to for the smart writing and groundbreaking stories it still sometimes features. But surely its techno-savvy readership is the very last crowd that would embrace the CueCat’s condescending approach to Web surfing. The CueCat folks have now sent out oodles of free hardware to customers of Wired, Forbes and other business partners, at no doubt a considerable cost — and if my experience is any guide they are going to find themselves with precious few users.

A kludge is engineering slang for a fast-and-dirty workaround, a quick fix to a problem that may be inelegant or inefficient but that does the job. The CueCat doesn’t even merit the status of a kludge, since it doesn’t seem to work very well and doesn’t really solve a problem; it’s more of a Rube Goldberg contraption, an improbable creation that accomplishes nothing but that’s absurd in its complexity. Rube Goldberg contraptions, of course, are intended to amuse, not work.

With their mantra of “digital convergence” — and an even more preposterous scheme of connecting your CueCat to your TV set as well as your PC — the innovators behind CueCat promise “the creation of a simple and free convergent solution that would not require Americans to change their media habits.” I’m sorry, my media habits do not currently include reading magazines while holding a scanner in my hands.

There are innovative uses for bar coding in daily life that some geeks might get off on, like bar coding and then creating a database for your CD collection (if you happen to own thousands). But for most consumers the bar code is even less user-friendly than the Web; clicking a link is still easier than scanning.

What’s driving this scheme isn’t consumer convenience at all but, rather, marketing mania. The pressure to try to get consumers to adopt the CueCat is the pressure magazine advertisers and publishers feel to make the ad pages they buy and sell more trackable. Now that advertisers are getting used to tracking “click-through” on Web ads (and being disappointed by the information they get), they are beginning to think they should hold print ads to the same level of accountability. If only those print ads were clickable, too! CueCat comes along and promises to make that happen.

The only trouble is, we’d have to become a nation of scanner-crazed checkout clerks to make it work. And if there’s anything the Web has taught those marketers smart enough to pay attention, it’s that you’ve got to adapt technology to people’s behavior. If you expect people to adapt to technology, your technology is likely to end up in the nearest landfill.

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Note: Several readers wrote in after this article was published pointing me to information about the conflict between the CueCat company and Linux enthusiasts who’d written software to make the CueCat scanners work with Linux-based computers. Slashdot has the details.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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