About the CueCat

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 USB. The CueCat enabled a user to open a link to an Internet URL by scanning a barcode 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.


In late 2000, advertisements containing CueCat barcodes briefly appeared in some high-circulation U.S. mass-market periodicals, notably Parade magazine, Forbes magazine and TIME magazine. For a time, RadioShack published catalogs containing these barcodes, and even distributed CueCat devices at no charge. CueCats were also bulk mailed (unsolicited) to certain mailing lists, such as subscribers of technology magazines, notably Wired magazine. 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).

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.

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. Due to the weak obfuscation of the data, 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.

Commercial failure

The CueCat concept was a commercial failure. While some believe that this failure was due to implementation stumbles which alienated the early adopter market, others question whether the intended use of the device provided value to the end users. Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune questioned this value, writing "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."

The CueCat device was controversial, initially due to privacy concerns. 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 credit to privacy concerns about the use of data.

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.

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.

Digital Convergence responded to this security breach by sending an informative email to those affected by the incident assuring them that it was correcting this problem and would be offering them a $10 gift certificate to Radio Shack.

Information courtesy of Wikipedia

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