Magazine article Editor & Publisher

2000 Doesn't Look like Year of the 'Cat

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

2000 Doesn't Look like Year of the 'Cat

Article excerpt

But Belo hopes its cute new scanner, linking print to the Web, has nine lives

Six months ago, Belo executives gathered financial analysts to unveil the company's biggest and most important Internet investment to date, using what was called "the biggest computer innovation since the mouse."

In a demonstration employing bar codes on soup cans, Belo showed how it was going to make its newspapers and TV stations seamless with the Internet. The technology came from Digital:Convergence Corp., a privately held Dallas company in which Belo bought a $37.5- million stake.

The company makes scanners that can call up Web pages when swiped across bar codes on consumer products such as canned goods -- or, in Belo's case, newspapers and TV screens. Digital:Convergence said its feline-shaped :CueCat scanner, as it is cutely called, represented a mouselike advance, and likened it to "a global positioning system for the Internet."

Old-media companies such as Belo have been searching for ways to ensure their long-term viability as eyeballs drift to the Internet. The industry approach has been to create online versions of newspapers and form online classified advertising consortia while investing in early- stage Internet companies.

Digital:Convergence now appeared to offer a way to tie print and Web operations more directly than ever before. For Belo, it could be the magic bullet the company needed to improve its ailing stock price.

Wall Street types seemed intrigued by the presentation. The technology supposedly would enhance the value of printed newspapers and advertising, for which Belo would charge a premium.

Now, fast forward four months to September.

That's when the :CueCat rollout began, first by Forbes magazine, then by Belo's flagship, The Dallas Morning News. Technology critics pounced on the 'Cats, calling them clumsy and useless. They would cost Belo $1.5 million to launch and were already starting to look like a colossal flop.

Convenience has been the biggest complaint about the 'Cat, which also was adopted by Wired, Parade, and the Adweek Magazines group (to which E&P belongs). It plugs into a PC, which means users have to sit in front of the screen while reading a newspaper or magazine.

Some found the 'Cat slow to install, and Mac users were annoyed that it only worked with PCs; the 'Cats won't be Mac-ready until January. (Digital:Convergence said it wanted to start with the biggest group of computer users.)

Once the 'Cat was installed, the bar codes were supposed to take users straight to deeply embedded Web pages, saving them time searching the Net and keying in long URLs. But, in many cases, users were just being routed to advertisers' home pages.

"Nobody's started from the consumer need," said Daniel O'Brien, senior analyst with Forrester Research. "They're all starting from the marketer's point of view."

Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter S. Mossberg said the product failed the tests of both usefulness and convenience. He concluded that "for now, the :CueCat isn't worth installing and using, even though it's available free of charge."

The Providence Journal, which is Belo-owned and usually publishes Mossberg's column, didn't run this one, causing controversy that drew national attention. Executive Editor Joel P. Rawson explained that he decided to delay running the column until Nov. 12, when the Journal launches the :CueCat, so readers can see the product in context. He said he plans to include other views, too, including his own. "What I want people to do is judge what The Providence Journal does with this device," he said.

Privacy also has been an issue. The 'Cat requires each user to provide his or her age, sex, and ZIP code, which prompted concerns that Digital:Convergence would use the data to track online activity; the company said it's only collecting the data for advertiser purposes. …

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