The mouse on my desktop got a companion this week - the CueCat - and it's a fascinating gadget indeed.
It's 5 inches long and shaped like a stylized feline, ready to pounce, with a mysterious red light emanating from its open mouth. It connects to the keyboard port of my computer with a Y-cable. To get it working I had to install driver software and register on the company's Web site, providing my name, e-mail address, age, sex and ZIP code.
So what do I get for my trouble?
Well, when I rub the CueCat across the Universal Product Code on a box of Glad garbage bags, my Web browser launches and takes me to Glad's home page. Just what I always wanted.
When I swipe it across the bar code under a TV set in Radio Shack's latest catalog, it takes me to the TV page of the Shack's online store. That's actually helpful. When I pass CueCat over a bar code at the bottom of a Forbes magazine article on the WholeHealthMD Web site, it takes me right to the outfit's home page. When I swipe a bar at the bottom of an advertisement, I'm whisked to the company's Web site.
None of this sounds earth-shattering. But a well-funded, Dallas-based start-up called Digital Convergence is betting $100 million that you and I will find the CueCat irresistible. It plans to give away 10 million CueCats by the end of the year - a bold effort to dominate a fledgling market for magazines, newspapers, catalogs and even household products that are Web-activated.
Some people think this is a great idea; others think it's silly. You can get a CueCat free at any Radio Shack store and try it yourself, or DC will send you the gadget for $10 if you visit the company's Web site (www.getcuecat.com). Forbes is sending CueCats to its 750,000 subscribers, as are Wired magazine and the Dallas Morning News. Parade magazine is putting bar code "Cues" in its articles and ads, and other publications are in the pipeline.
Just be aware that CueCat may not be the perfect house pet.
This month, Digital Convergence left the enrollment records of 140,000 users in a temporary, unprotected file that was uncovered by hackers. The company admitted its mistake and closed the security hole.
Meanwhile, Linux developers writing CueCat drivers found that the gadget transmits a unique serial number that could allow Digital Convergence to build a database of users' Web surfing habits and any products they happened to scan.
On Friday the nonprofit Privacy Foundation issued a statement warning consumers about the tracking and asking the company to remove its identifiers and make consumers more aware of the data that are being collected.
Company officials insist they're not using the data to track individual users and have taken great pains to ensure anonymity.
The company is also rattling legal sabers, sending threatening but vaguely worded letters to hardware enthusiasts who adapted the CueCat for their own purposes and posted their plans on the Web. The letters demanded that the information be removed from the Web and charged the mystified recipients with being "in conflict with intellectual property rights owned by Digital Convergence." The letters did not say what those rights were.
So the CueCat has managed to kick up a lot of kitty litter in the month or so it's been around.
Like many stories involving privacy and the right to disseminate information on the Web, this one is complicated. Digital Convergence's top officials were forthright and willing to talk about the issues - they're proud of what they're doing, and not without reason.
Over the past two years, at least four companies have developed technologies for embedding Web information in printed publications. They're driven by the notion that it's hard for readers to find specific pages or products embedded so deep in Web sites that it's impossible to publish their lengthy addresses in print.
For example, the URL for my last column on SunSpot.net looked like this: http://www.sunspot.net/content/news/stor y?section=news-pluggedin&pagename;=story&storyid;=1150470202938.
Want to try typing that in your browser?
"The problem everybody faces, for all practical purposes, is that the only way to enter a Web site is through the front page," said Michael Garin, DC's president and CEO. That leaves readers searching for specific information wandering around, and research shows that they often give up after three clicks.
The solution, Garin said, is a printed code that can be scanned and transmitted to a server that looks up the proper URL and sends your browser to the appropriate Web page. That page could contain detailed local sports results on a newspaper's Web site or the order form for a specific dress in a department store ad.
CueCat is built around a standard bar code wand, a cheap solution but one that requires a relatively large bar code. Its chief competitor, from GoCode of Charleston, S.C., is a more expensive, pen-shaped scanner that uses a tiny, hieroglyphic "button" that takes up much less space.
DigiMarc, an Oregon company best known for its digital music copy protection, embeds "watermarks" in print ads that are invisible to the eye but can be picked up by a digital camera. AirClic, a Blue Bell, Pa., firm that recently signed a major deal with Motorola, is embedding scanners in mobile phones and other gadgets.
Digital Convergence was the first to deploy on a grand scale. It plans to make money by licensing its technology to print publishers, catalog houses and companies that want their products' UPC bar codes Web-enabled.
"But that's only half of our technology," Garin said. The company is also marketing a cable that runs from a TV set to a computer's audio card. When it hears a code embedded in a broadcast, it can point the PC's Web browser to a site with related information. The firm has signed up NBC as a partner, but embedded broadcasts are still several months off.
The notion that Digital Convergence could track both reading habits and watching habits has privacy advocates concerned. But Garin swears that the company is not using the wand's serial number to track individual users.
"The last thing we want to do is fall into the privacy morasses that other people have fallen into," he said. "The only information we gather is aggregated data." For example, he said, Digital Convergence could tell a client how many people in various demographic categories used the CueCat to visit a particular site, but not who they were.
Of course, companies can change their privacy policies at will. That's what Amazon.com did this month when it abandoned a longstanding confidentiality promise and announced that its customer information could be sold to a third party.
But Doug Davis, president of DC's technology group, said his company prevents that by using an encryption scheme that strips out users' personal identification in such a way that it can never be retrieved.
"We set up our data warehousing system in such a way that even if Dr. Evil took over the company, he couldn't take the database and reverse it," he declared.
Lauren Weinstein, moderator of another watchdog group called the Privacy Forum, is troubled by Cue- Cat but gives credit to Digital Convergence for addressing the issue.
"I think they're trying within the bounds of their world view, though whether that will be sufficient in the end, given the current sensitivities about these topics, will remain to be seen," he said.
On another front, the company's legal assault on a group of Linux hackers has puzzled and angered its targets.
Michael Rothwell, research director for an Internet service provider in North Carolina, said he developed a program for the CueCat that would catalog his extensive book collection. It reads the ISBN bar code on the cover of each volume and retrieves the title, author, publisher and other information from databases maintained by Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Two days after he posted his program on the Web (a point of honor among programmers in the Open Source movement), he got a cease-and-desist letter from Digital Convergence. Since he was using a CueCat that was given to him and he hadn't trespassed on Digital Convergence's proprietary software, he was puzzled by the company's vague accusations.
"Since they don't tell me what they want me to stop," he said, "it's hard to know what to do. I don't understand their position, but I can't do anything about it."
Eventually he moved his posting to another server.
When I asked Davis about the letters, he was a bit more specific but not much. "They're developing computer applications in our patent space," he said.
Pressed a bit more, he said the company is relying on a 1991 patent it acquired that covers the use of a standard bar code scanner to "create a network event."
This would be a fairly broad patent, and could keep others from using bar code readers for purposes that have nothing to do with Digital Convergence's core business.
Companies with critical patents in emerging technologies often like to lie low while others are building successful applications without knowing that they're infringing. Then they unleash the lawyers, demanding royalties. In this case, Rothwell and his fellow developers may have inadvertently let the CueCat out of the bag.
Of course, Davis said, Digital Convergence is happy to license its technology - for a fee.