Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

CueCat: How it could hurt the creator

By Mr. Penguin in Culture
Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 06:17:32 PM EST
Tags: Hardware (all tags)

This article at The Register discusses the CueCat barcode scanner produced by Digital Convergence. The author of the article discusses how the "encryption" scheme used by the CueCat has been cracked, how free drivers have been written for it, and how the customer database was recently compromised.

One of the topics discussed by The Register is how it was a failed idea from the beginning. My question is this: Did it ever have any redeeming qualities?

The original idea for the CueCat (as I understand it, anyway) was for customers to use catalogs to instantly take them to the webpage where they could purchase the item that they clicked on. But who among those willing to shop on the Internet would rather browse hard copy before making their purchase? Mistake number one

Then, the company who manufactured the CueCat decided to give them away for free, presumably hoping that they would garner revenue based on purchases made using the CueCat. They used a serial number embedded into the device to track such purchases, which instantly made people feel nervous Mistake number two

Finally, Digital Convergence decided to "crack down" on those who tried to use it for non-intended purposes. They claimed that their "license agreement", which would have been agreed to had you actually opened the accompanying software, prevented the user from doing such, but it was quickly determined that if you were going to write your own drivers for the device, you probably weren't going to use their software anyway. This caused many people to grow angy at Digital Convergence for trying to find fault in innocent purposes. Mistake number three

I'm guessing that the author at The Register is right in alluding to the fact that Digital Convergence will be screwed by their own product. It's too easy to circumvent or reverse-engineer their technology, and there is little use for it the way it was intended. It seems likely to me that many of the original CueCat scanners will wind up in small businesses around the country to be used for inventory purposes in lieu of purchased scanners. For that reason, small business owners everywhere should probably thank Digital Convergence for saving them money and making their lives easier.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Would you make purchases with a CueCat?
o Yes 2%
o No 66%
o Possibly 7%
o Do I have to feed it? 23%

Votes: 178
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o This
o The Register
o Digital Convergence
o Also by Mr. Penguin

Display: Sort:
CueCat: How it could hurt the creator | 36 comments (24 topical, 12 editorial, 0 hidden)
CueCat problems.. (3.85 / 14) (#5)
by Inoshiro on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 01:22:42 PM EST

I'm sure they'd have done better if they'd pushed the whole "you can catalog your CDs/books/possessions easily" thing instead of their current model. Hell, they could've sold them for 20$ and made a profit (judging from the amount of electronics in the device).

I know the only use I got from it was when I tried to catalog my books. But no online db seems to have the ISBNs for Deathlands novels :-(

[ イノシロ ]
Re: CueCat problems.. (3.66 / 6) (#26)
by charter on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 01:01:22 AM EST

I agree. It's a great little device, but they weren't selling the DEVICE; they were selling the PURPOSE. And the original poster is absolutely correct in saying that the purpose of the CueCat was ill-conceived at best. I'd love a CueCat if it was sold as an input device, and it came with software to generate bar codes (that could then be printed out on labels) and translate the input for uploading into a database. THAT would be cool. But using it to buy Radio Shack products out of a magazine? Doubtful. Very doubtful.

[ Parent ]
Deadlands Novels (4.00 / 5) (#27)
by Nio Spartan on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 09:49:49 AM EST

The Deadlands series is published by Golden Eagle Press, which is a subsidiary of Harlequein Press (of romance novel fame).

Both Harlequein and Golden Eagle publish their books as *softcover magazines* - that is, the titles are distrubuted for a run of a few seasons or a year. After the duration is completed, bookstores carrying their stock are instructed (by Harlequein) to destroy the titles, while returning the covers bearing the ISBN number. Harlequein then uses the tally count of the sold/unsold titles to keep tabs on which storylines & authors are popular.

This system the same one typical of "pulp" titles, but it's one that's provided Harlequein an advantage over other publishers. By eliminating the amount of backstock sitting in their warehouses, Harlequein isn't prey to the sort of liquidation woes other companies are succeptable to, and the total cost of shipping is reduced, as their stock is sent one way, while the returned covers are sent back via parcel post by bookstores (such as the one I worked at ^_^ ) .

With especially popular titles, such as the Axler novels, Harlequein will wait until demand is high, and then re-release the title (if they so choose), sometimes with a new ISBN for tracking.
What does courage mean? You can't program it. -Hugo Pratt
[ Parent ]
Re: CueCat problems.. (3.80 / 5) (#29)
by WWWWolf on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 10:57:00 AM EST


I live in Finland, and regrettably :CueCats aren't too widely available here for obvious reasons... Heck, I'd definitely want one: Free barcode reader to catalog my largish heap of CDs and books. And it looks kind of cute. And, oh, maybe it could be used to order some stuff online. Who knows.

See? I'm just a barbarian who has heard of cool uses for a widget that's available for free (in some distant parts of the world). If DC wants to win this battle, they should consider the hacker-done stuff an advantage, not a threat.

-- Weyfour WWWWolf, a lupine technomancer from the cold north...

[ Parent ]
Re: CueCat problems.. (3.00 / 2) (#30)
by Phil Gregory on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 07:08:04 PM EST

But no online db seems to have the ISBNs for Deathlands novels

I'm just curious. What online databases are you currently looking at for your book information?

I ask because I'm trying to do the same thing--put my books into a database via scanning their barcodes--but I haven't found a single good source of information. isbndb.org is mostly empty. The library of congress doesn't have information on mass-market paperbacks (which constitute about half of my collection). I can only get title and author(s) from Amazon.com.

--Phil (Eventually, my books will be organized the way I'd like--probably sometime in 2017.)
355/113 -- Not the famous irrational number PI, but an incredible simulation!
[ Parent ]
Re: CueCat problems.. (4.00 / 1) (#33)
by Inoshiro on Wed Sep 27, 2000 at 11:14:31 AM EST

As another poster replied (regarding my Deathlands novels) the ISBNs probably won't be properly in any db :-(.. I tried the US Library of Congress DB, as well as a few online retailers (using a mass-search page -- it hung halfway down the list on a crap site).

I strongly suspect I'll just have to enter everything by hand.

[ イノシロ ]
[ Parent ]
Available in Blighty? (2.55 / 9) (#11)
by Aztech on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 07:54:22 AM EST

I hope they don't eat through that $100m in VC money before they get a chance to get into the UK market, I wouldn't mind one of those things. It would be great for cataloguing stuff, hmm ... is it considered inhumane to affix barcodes to pets?

Anyway, Tandy (read: RadioShack UK, don't worry just as crap as the US ones) doesn't seem to have a mention of them :/

Also, Wired UK went tits up in March 97 ... no chance there then, there's about 50 new net magazines now, I could never work out why Wired dropped out just as everything was starting to take off.

Mistake Number One (3.27 / 11) (#12)
by eann on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 08:57:47 AM EST

My understanding was the print-to-web convergence they were trying to encourage was not so much from paper catalogs but advertisements. See an ad, "Hey, that looks cool; I want one!", scan the little barcode and it's in your shopping cart at the manufacturer's web site. The revenue came from selling the right to making CueCat-scannable barcodes in your ads, and presumably some lookup-service.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. —MLK

$email =~ s/0/o/; # The K5 cabal is out to get you.

Marketing Gimmick (3.41 / 12) (#15)
by OKolzig37 on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 02:50:31 PM EST

The bottom line is there is no purpose for the CueCat. True invention fulfills a need (known or otherwise). The CueCat is not true invention.

Here in Dallas, where Digital Convergence is headquartered, both the Dallas Morning News and the local ABC afilliate have jumped on this bandwagon. The ad campaign on TV says that this will help you fight through the information you are deluged with to find exactly the information you want. Yeah right!! If anything, you will be deluged with more information than before!

The only purpose for CueCat is for marketers who want to measure the effectiveness of physical advertising campaigns (like they can online through banner ads). Marketers think this a great idea (of course - just like New Coke, Crystal Pepsi, Divx, Big Brother) because traditional marketing campaigns are nebulous, at best, when it comes to finding out how many people they are reaching.

Then, of course, there are the obvious security problems and constant bad press that it's receiving. That isn't helping.
Oldy moldy, history mystery!
That seems to be the problem. (2.44 / 9) (#17)
by static on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 06:48:45 PM EST

I was ready to applaud them for getting such a cheap device out into the market. But that was only a side-effect. I was willing to go to bat for them for trying to fill a niche. But it wasn't a niche they were filling.


[ Parent ]

Re: Marketing Gimmick (2.77 / 9) (#18)
by Didel on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 06:53:08 PM EST

I'm going to have to disagree. The CueCat does serve a need. I needed a free barcode scanner to amuse me for a couple of hours and Digital Convergence fulfilled this need for me. :)

[ Parent ]
It could have worked if it was handled differently (3.83 / 6) (#21)
by adamsc on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 07:41:44 PM EST

They made the common mistake of looking down at the consumer. It could have worked if they'd worked out something like the various grocery club cards. Nobody wants to use a device which gives them all of this marketing info and gives you nothing.

I could see many people reconsidering if it gave you some sort of benefits (e.g. gift certificates, discounts on your favorite products, or a fast-track redemption system for promotions like Pepsi-points) and came with extras like software to catalog your belongings.

[ Parent ]

Re: It could have worked if it was handled differe (none / 0) (#35)
by fluffy grue on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 01:43:50 AM EST

Interestingly enough, the only grocery card I've ever belonged to (the Smith's "Fresh Values" card) didn't have any GUIDs attached to the card - it basically looked like a coupon to the cash register - and it was easy enough to falsify my information on the application form (since they give you the card right then and there).

Not that I care anymore. Smith's sucks now, and I shop at Albertson's - which has "bonus buys" - club savings without the card. (i.e. "we don't mark up the price as much as the other stores do and then give you extra 'savings,' instead we tell you how much we didn't mark it up." Hey, works for me.)

That said, one thing I kinda liked about Smith's was that they did print out coupons based on purchases made. One-shot recommendation tracking. No GUID involved or anything, and I could have given the coupons to someone else. That's the way recommendation tracking should work - don't store any persistent data, just give recommendations for the next visit based on what was done on the current visit. A pity Albertson's doesn't do that.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

CueCat (2.08 / 12) (#16)
by Anonymous 6522 on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 05:17:27 PM EST

I'd actually take the time to hook this thing up to my computer and use the Linux drivers if the thing did look like a cute little animal. It's the one thing that keeps it in it's box.

CueCat used for Market/Demographic info gathering (3.18 / 11) (#19)
by Garc on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 07:13:09 PM EST

Besides giving the device away at Radio Shack and with Wired, DC _could_ link your scanning/consumer interests to your name. When I got mine at Radio Shack, they asked for my name/phone number/whatever, and then scanned the barcode on the cuecat. I'm positive that if you subscribe to Wired, they already have your name and address.

Granted, I'm not sure if DC does get that info with feedback from RS, and Wired, but if they did then they would know a lot about the interests of the individuals using the CueCat.

That was what bothered me the most, is that someone could know exactly what I was interested in, the stuff I scanned in the privacy of my home. I could get mail sent to me directly related to what I scanned with my scanner. Someone could (already has happened) crack their database, and find out that I'm a huge fan of Barbra Streisand music. Dreadful.

If they don't get the info from RS et. al. then they could at least track the habits of an unnamed person using the ID associated with my individual CueCat, and get product interest correlation info from that. Something that still bothers me.

Tomorrow is going to be wonderful because tonight I do not understand anything. -- Niels Bohr
Re: CueCat used for Market/Demographic info gather (3.62 / 8) (#24)
by forrest on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 09:59:09 PM EST

According to this page, it appears that your address isn't collected at Radio Shack when you pick up the unit, because the bar codes they scan are all the same. (Mine says 680-1965 on top, and 0 40293 15350 2 on the bottom).

That only makes sense, when you consider they're entering it into their POS system -- they didn't get special tracking hardware just to give away CueCats.

I never touched the software, but this article in Salon gave me a good idea of what Windows lusers were expected to go through in order to set up the software. It sounds like they collect your information then. Lots of it.

[ Parent ]

Radio Shack and addresses (2.66 / 6) (#28)
by Malk-a-mite on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 09:56:30 AM EST

If you buy batteries at Radio Shack they ask for your name and address. It happened to me a few years ago, when I responed by asking "Why?" the clerk was stunned.
He sat there with his mouth hanging open, when he finally stammered a response it was only something about I need to enter it into the computer.
So I asked why again, and he just replied that he needed to.
Well guess what, I didn't buy the batteries, and I don't shop at Radio Shack anymore.


[ Parent ]

Re: Radio Shack and addresses (3.00 / 3) (#31)
by Phil Gregory on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 07:14:35 PM EST

Every time I've bought things at Radio Shack, I've told them that I prefer not to give out my information, and they just ring up the sale without entering anything. Once, (only once) the salesperson told me that there was no warranty unless I gave my information, but they usually don't even comment.

--Phil (And the items that I was buying without warranty were plastic cable ties.)
355/113 -- Not the famous irrational number PI, but an incredible simulation!
[ Parent ]
Two different views (2.40 / 10) (#22)
by Emacs on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 08:09:21 PM EST

The head of marketing in my company got one of these and had it connected and installed before I had finished my first cup of morning coffee. He was glowing like a child on Christmas morning and kept talking about how neat he thought it was.

A week later the head Windows programmer at my company got his cuecat and about an hour later he was calling me and trying to give it away (I didn't want it just because I really don't have the time to fiddle with it). He never even tried to install it, he did go on a bit about how bad it looked and what a stupid idea it was.

Thus ends my little tale about my experience with the cue cat. You are welcome to form your own conclusions :)

redeeming quality: (1.00 / 8) (#23)
by JediLuke on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 08:34:43 PM EST

it was free...and now i have another neeto gadget. if they ask for it back...they are full of shit.
"You're all clear kid, lets blow this joint and go home." -Han Solo
Wired magazine sinks to new low (3.45 / 11) (#25)
by mihalis on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 10:25:51 PM EST

Wired magazine has been severely on the decline for a while now. I notice things like the index being pushed 70 pages into the magazine by all the ads (not to mention they now take cigarette ads which they didn't use to).

They sent a free CueCat to my girlfriend because she has a Wired subscription. Not only did she not install or agree to any licenses, she is a media buyer and will NOT be paying any extra for their stupid scannable adverts. So I have it now and it will only be attached to a linux machine behind a firewall. I don't think they did very well overall with this household.

It's a bit like the I-Opener story all over again, only they send you the darn things in the mail unbidden so the machines are legally yours without the raising of a finger.

As for redeeming qualities, it's got decent looking cables with it. I might use them even if I don't find a use for the scanner. Also someone will probably invent some amazingly cool use for it so I'll be glad to have it stashed away. For example someone could make a sheet covered in barcodes for different actions and it could take the place of the keyboard and mouse combo when playing Quake3, and a different sheet would replace the joystick for those tricky manoeuvers in Descent 3. Ok, that is silly. I deny I suggested it :)
-- Chris Morgan <see em at mihalis dot net>

Loan, my arse (3.20 / 5) (#32)
by pac4854 on Tue Sep 26, 2000 at 11:06:11 PM EST

I got mine at Radio Shack. Their computer system was horked the day I was there, so they didn't even get to record my name. I never even opened, the bag, much less got a chance to read the EULA. Its still sitting on my desk, waiting for my ambition to crest....

I just can't think of a use for the damn thing. If DC wants it back, I guess they can contact me. But since they don't know I have one that could be a bit of a problem.

I've been told they make a great nightlite.
-- Microsoft is to the internet what Jerry Springer is to television.
Test post (1.58 / 12) (#34)
by Signal 11 on Mon Oct 02, 2000 at 12:45:37 PM EST

First post here on kuro5hin, just playing with the system.

Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.
Re: Test post (2.33 / 3) (#36)
by Not Jon Katz on Tue Oct 03, 2000 at 12:58:18 PM EST

Welcome aboard son!

[ Parent ]
CueCat: How it could hurt the creator | 36 comments (24 topical, 12 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!