For The Love Of The Cat, Let's Digress

Well, in the year or so of writing this column, whining, moaning, bashing and even gushing over mobile marketing and content, nothing sparked reader feedback quite so much as last week's mention of the infamous CueCat.

Like a cheesy song from senior year playing on the radio, recalling this handheld scanner sent many of back to those heady go-go days of digital. There really was a time when no technical scheme seemed too outlandish, no invisible business model too madcap. If you are too young or inexperienced to recall the time when start-ups grew like kudzu and business models seemed to begin with their sell-out exit strategies, well, just look at the mobile landscape now. Take away the IPO ambitions and the sock puppet Super Bowl ads, and 2007 looks a lot like 1999. Back in the day, every other business plan opened by reminding us that the "world wide web" had an addressable audience of hundreds of millions. Garnering just 1% or 2% could yield riches. In other words, you could fail 98% of the time and still make it big in what sounded like a no fault-medium. And today, every other pitch I see (and I am being conservative here) starts with the 200 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. alone. And that same 1% remains as lucrative as ever.

But I digress from my digression.

Like me, many of you waxed nostalgic at the mention of the CueCat. A refugee from one major publisher remembers trying to raise objection to that damned cat when his company invested in the concept generously. He recalls trying to make the thing look innocent in product shots. "We must have photographed it from every possible angle for ads, but no matter how you looked at that thing with a hand holding it, it looked positively pornographic!" He ended up decorating an office Christmas tree with the many leftover felines. The powers-that-be were not amused.

By the way, for the uninitiated, or the sentimentalists among you, there is still a home page-cum-memorial for the device at There are photos of the Cat and an instance of the print code that activated it. Don't even try your old cat anymore, however. The database server that fed the doomed animal went dead in 2002.

There was also a lot of CueCat abuse going on out there, as people retrofitted the device for other purposes or just eviscerated it for sociopathic kicks. One of my favorites is "How to Neuter a :Cat" at, which chronicles how CueCat maker DigitalConvergence went after hackers. The site also offers precise instructions for confounding the device's functionality. Another site called "CueCat Software Spies on You" gets paranoid in that special serotonin-deprived way only the technorati can. It knows what you read, where you live, how you browse. Lay down the sandbags, boys, and get ready to crunch down on those cyanide capsules. The marketers are coming over the ridge.

Of course, back here on earth, I also got contacted or referred to several mobile marketing firms that have their own brand of using a phone cam to read physical world codes. There is NeoMedia's Qode at that reads a printed smartcode. The Nextcode company tells me that their mCode is being used as a shortcut for voting on Miss Philippines. And, no, the contestants don't have to sport bar codes on their thighs. I know of another U.S. firm working in Japan that uses a combination of GPS, compass and gyroscope to know precisely where a phone is pointing in order to return search results.

And lest I get too cynical, there are loads of open-minded cat lovers like Elaine Clisham from American Press Institute, who posted on our blog " about lightening up on the CueCat folks? Yeah, they were an object lesson in how to do new product R&D the wrong way, but hey, they actually tried to innovate in an industry that historically hasn't valued innovation, and we should at least give 'em props for being willing to go way out on that limb all by themselves while the leering cynics laughed at them."

Well, I admit to being cynical, but I haven't actually leered since I reran that Paula Abdul "Straight Up" video fifty time in a row back in 1989. Unless Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl counts, too? Or Ashley Judd's possible flash at the Oscars? I must have replayed that clip a good 20 times without discovering the truth.

But I digress from my digression yet again. I also heard from Dave Matthews, one of the guys on the original CueCat team, who apparently is working at Sling Media on a convergence device with a lot more potential.

Then on the other hand, a link comes across the transom to a "Where Are They Now" feature that cites former DigitalConvergence CEO, J. Jovan Philyaw. It shows that he is now head of some odd firm in Dallas that hawks "unique entertainment properties."

Which raises the question in my mind; are there any unique entertainment devices around now that will be our CueCat of the future? Surely Microsoft's portable Zune could be destined for the "what were they thinking" wing of the computer museum. But the Zune is not a weird invention so much as a desperate attempt to catch the 2:30 train at 5 pm. I recall many demos several years ago of music recognition systems that could ID a tune if you held the phone close your radio. Did anyone ever make good use of those? Multicast Mobile TV could well be an expensive flop, but it was almost inevitable that someone would try such a scheme. Otherwise, I can't identify a CueCat on the mobile horizon. But since so many of you are in the mood to riff on the Cat, I wonder if any of you can?



Next story loading loading..