You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can.

Particularly when this plan requires consumers to load new software onto their computer, wait through a lengthy installation procedure, reboot, climb behind their computers, unhook wires, hook up new wires, reboot again and fidget with a finicky new gadget in order to gain the ability to interact with a soda can.

But then, that's just one of many tricks that can be performed by the new :CueCat, a bar code scanner being distributed for free to Radio Shack shoppers and subscribers of Wired and Forbes magazines. By plugging the :CueCat into your PC, you'll be able to interact with magazines, soap, packs of gum, coupons or most anything else with a bar code.

Why in the world would you want to do that? The question seems beside the point. For while consumers will find the :CueCat as superfluous as the colon before its name, advertisers are the ones who are supposed to be purring.

Here's how the :CueCat works: Once you get it up and running a cumbersome process that takes about an hour you can use it to scan bar codes into your computer. It recognizes the kind used on groceries and books as well as custom codes that some Wired and Forbes sponsors have printed in their ads.

The :CueCat software checks the code against an online database and directs your browser to a Web site associated with the product or advertisement you scanned. It also drops an annoying task bar on the bottom of your screen in hopes you'll let advertisers direct you to a few more lame sites.

Maybe it's because I'm a dog person, but I just can't see the consumer problem this product solves. The flier shipped with my :CueCat boasts that it "takes you directly to the Web page you're looking for." Not exactly; it takes me to the Web site some advertiser wants me to see.

Injunction overload

"No more cumbersome search engines," it brags. Excuse me? Do they think everyone who goes online is looking for more information about products that they already own?

I realize the Web is pretty commercialized, but I think there still might be a few pages worth searching for that offer more than a product pitch.

Anyone who wants more information about a product can just type in the Web address that appears on virtually everything these days. But that wouldn't allow the :CueCat to complete it's actual mission: extending online tracking into the real world.

Before you can scan anything with :CueCat, you must turn over your name, age and e-mail address to DigitalConvergence.:Com Inc., the corporation behind the cat. The installation routine also urges you to complete a lengthy survey stocked with invasive questions about your shopping plans, your hobbies and even the level of education you've received.

The stated purpose for all this nonsense is to provide you with targeted special offers, presumably via e-mail or the taskbar. But the real reason for the data probe is to help DigitalConvergence.:Com make better use of its tracking data.

The company can keep tabs on everything you scan, including the products you or your children buy and the magazines you read. It also can log your Web surfing habits and associate them with your real name and e-mail address. Their cute little cat is chasing your mouse, trying to find out where it's been clicking and what it might do next.

Security breach

The company says it won't sell your data to anyone without your permission. But that doesn't mean it's safe. On Sept. 15, just weeks after the first :CueCat hit the streets, the company announced a "security breach" had left its user data exposed to the world.

The Web whetted advertisers' appetite for surveillance, giving them unprecedented access to previously unknowable details about consumers. The :CueCat is designed to extend the reach of those techniques into the offline world, giving marketers a way to target their pitches based on things people do away from their computers.

But these plans would seem more devious if there were even a remote possibility that people would make regular use of their :CueCats. As it is, this poorly conceived device is about as threatening as a super-villain who plans to conquer the world by sending out hypnotic signals over public access TV.

Perhaps a few people out there really are anxious to interact with their soda can. But if so, they need more help than any plastic cat can offer.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL, 60611.

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