Can barcodes bridge the print-Web gap?

Are barcode readers the key to digital convergence?
Written by David Coursey, Contributor
Here's one of those ideas that must have seemed plausible enough to someone but that I just don't get.

It's a company called DigitalConvergence.:com -- yes, the colon is what makes the company's ":c" trademark work but keeps it from working as a URL. The company claims to have created the "biggest computer innovation since the mouse."

And this technological wonder is -- try to breathe normally -- a little proprietary barcode reader it calls ":Cue:C.A.T."

Using the reader, you can scan a barcode and be taken to a Web page, presumably because someone has paid DigitalConvergence a fee to take you there. The company's slogan -- "See Our :Cue," which is also the name (:C.R.Q.) of its software -- was obviously conjured up by someone who spent too much time on ICQ or ICU.

The idea is for millions of computer users to plug these cats into their computers and scan barcodes to their hearts' content as a means to avoid typing those evil URLs and querying search engines.

DigitalConvergence says you can use the reader with any barcode -- such as all those grocery and bookstore items -- and the company's software will point your browser at the precise information you're seeking. Advertisers will also be able to create barcode links to specific Web pages within print ads.

I know about this scheme because Radio Shack is using a bunch of these barcodes in its catalog and giving away the little readers. Forbes magazine is supposed to be using them as well, although I haven't seen those.

And there is a broadcast version in which you connect a cable that allows your computer to listen for tones coming from your TV set, then steer your browser to a corresponding Web page. (This is so hokey I won't even dwell on it, save to comment that when a real link happens between the Web and broadcast advertising and content, this won't be it.)

Why is it I dislike this little toy so much? First because it's not really innovative but rather takes advantage of the works of others to make a fast buck.

The mouse, of course, was revolutionary; I've been to Xerox PARC, however, and the cat isn't close to its league as inventions go. I hate the way the barcodes trash up the look of the new Radio Shack catalog.

There is the crazy notion that people reading a print publication will dash to their computers to swipe a barcode for more information. And there's the idea that swiping is a good idea at all -- which I question.

All retail barcodes already have numbers associated with them and magazines have long had reader service numbers tied to specific advertisers. Why not use those instead of a swipe?

Using a URL such as www.radioshack.com/123245 (the catalog number of the product appended at the end) or www.forbes.com/121 (an advertiser reference number in this case) doesn't seem like so much trouble to me. And it would be easier to scale this scheme across an entire catalog than it would be to a zillion bar codes.

And, of course, DigitalConvergence won't be the only company to try this gambit; I seem to remember at least one other company, and given the low barrier to entry, I'm betting their will be more. So how many scanners and how much software will I need?

Certainly there is value in tying print and broadcast content and advertising more closely to the Web. But a barcode scanner -- a piece of dubiously valuable hardware attached to an already fragile PC operating system -- isn't my method of choice.

I don't need Radio Shack and Forbes to turn my PC into a grocery checker.

Industry analyst David Coursey is vice president of news for PennNET Inc., a Silicon Valley B2B start-up. He responds to readers on his site at www.coursey.com.

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