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CueCat barcode scanner

The CueCat (trademarked :CueCat) is a cat-shaped handheld barcode reader developed in the late 1990s by the now-defunct Digital Convergence Corporation, which connected to computers using the PS/2 keyboard port and later and less commonly, USB. The CueCat 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 system that supported this is no longer in operation, although intellectual property, numbering more than 100 patents, developed by the company during its inception has been licensed by consumer and commercial equipment manufacturers, services and enterprises.

The CueCat device communicated to desktop "CRQ" software running on Windows 32-bit and Mac OS 9 operating systems which users were required to register to their zip-code, gender and a valid email address. The systems that employed this registration process are no longer on the Internet and codes cannot be generated in order for the software to be re-installed today. People wishing to use the device currently can utilize third-party software to decode the lightweight encryption employed within the device. This registration process within the software enabled the device to deliver relevant content to a single or multiple users within a household.

Contents

Introduction

Digital Convergence Corporation
Type Corporation
Founded Dallas, Texas (1998)
Headquarters United States Dallas, Texas
Industry Electronics
Products peripheral devices, Software
Employees 250
A CueCat "cue". The bars are tilted 22.5° to the left, both for stylistic reasons and to avoid Lemelson parallel barcode patent concerns.

In late 2000, advertisements, special web editions and editorial content containing CueCat barcodes appeared for more than a year in many high-circulation U.S. mass-market periodicals, notably Parade magazine, Forbes magazine and Wired magazine. Commercial publications such as AdWeek, BrandWeek and MediaWeek also employed the technology. For a time, RadioShack published their product catalogs containing these barcodes, and even distributed CueCat devices through their retail chain to customers at no charge. CueCats were also bulk mailed (unsolicited) to certain mailing lists, such as subscribers of technology magazines, notably Forbes and Wired. For roughly a year, starting in October 2000, The Dallas Morning News and other Belo-owned newspapers added the barcodes next to major articles (Belo had invested in Digital Convergence) and regular features like stocks and weather.

Joel Spolsky speculated about the apparently large sums invested in the unsuccessful launch of the device, noting that according to the Digital Convergence website, the company claimed to have 200 employees as of 2000. Spolsky estimated that the "postage costs alone" of mailing CueCats to every subscriber of Wired, as was apparently done, must have been $1 million.[1] This cost was taken on by the partner publications, not by the corporation itself, who funded the cost of the devices.

The data format was proprietary, being scrambled so as not to be usable 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. 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.

:CRQ (a play on "see our cue") is software developed by Digital:Convergence intended to convert "cues" from television signals and the :Cuecat bar code reader into URLs. The television technology was launched on NBC during its "Must See TV" programming and used a computer sound card to decode an audible barcode and collect or launch a web site.

Embodiment failure

The CueCat in its initial concept has been considered a commercial failure, although the technology invented by the company in 1998 and deployed on September 11, 2000 is considered to be the forerunner to many popular barcode scanning, photo recognition, and manual barcode input apps that are now employed on smart phone technology. These were made common ten years after the launch of the CueCat by the Windows Mobile platform, iPhone, Android and Blackberry smart phones. Yet, it received the dubious distinction as one of "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time" according to PCWorld Magazine. The CueCat's critics said the device was ultimately of little use: wrote Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune, "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 "2000's" decade.

The CueCat device was controversial, initially because of privacy concerns of its collecting of aggregate user data, [2][3] 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 web sites arose detailing instructions for "declawing" the CueCat — blocking or encrypting the data it sent to Digital Convergence. The site digitaldemographics.com was also registered through Digital Convergence, which also gave credence to privacy concerns about the use of data. These fears were unfounded and became less common with other web properties later in the decade due to proliferation of social networks that enabled users to publicly post information about their whereabouts, location or opinions. The database utilized the unique serial number within each device to determine the viability of deployment through retail, magazine and other distribution partners. Any data collected was aggregated anonymously much like other serialized and identifiable devices such as TiVo have been employing since 1999.

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's licensing agreement was changed 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 not 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 specifically, 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.

Security breach

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.

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 Radio Shack.

Availability

In June 2005, a liquidator offered two million CueCats for sale at $0.30 each (in quantities of 500,000 or more).[4]

Several companies now sell the CueCat with their software database products, as an accessory to ease input of barcodes within the application. The bar code scanner itself is still being sold on secondary marketplace sites like Amazon and eBay.

Website

Although Digital Convergence and the CueCat system are generally assumed to be defunct, the Digital Convergence website remained as a ghost site through 2004. Previously, the website contained the following statement:

The dream was to connect items in the physical world to the Internet, automatically. In January that dream hit a bump in the road and the servers were taken offline. They will scan again... If you have a Cue Cat, save it. The patents and technology created by Digital Convergence will again be available for business and consumer use.

Currently the website contains information about the device, its history and information on the company licensing the resulting intellectual property which numbers more than 110 granted US patents.

See also

References

  1. ^ Wasting Money on Cats - Joel on Software
  2. ^ Bennett, Colin J. (2001), Ethics and Information Technology 3: 195, doi:10.1023/A:1012235815384 
  3. ^ "Curiosity killed the CueCat", Network Security 2000 (11): 2, 2000, doi:10.1016/S1353-4858(00)85003-5 
  4. ^ Two million CueCats at $0.30/each - Boing Boing

External links

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