It was all downhill after the Cuecat
Sometime in 2001, I walked into a Radio Shack on San Francisco’s Market Street and asked for a Cuecat: a handheld barcode scanner that looked a bit like a cat and a bit like a sex toy. The clerk handed one over to me and I left, feeling a little giddy. I didn’t have to pay a cent.
The Cuecat was a good idea and a terrible idea. The good idea was to widely distribute barcode scanners to computer owners, along with software that could read and decode barcodes; the company’s marketing plan called for magazines and newspapers to print barcodes alongside ads and articles, so readers could scan them and be taken to the digital edition. To get the Cuecat into widespread use, the company raised millions in the capital markets, then mass-manufactured these things and gave them away for free at Radio Shacks around the country. Every Wired and Forbes subscriber got one in the mail!
That was the good idea (it’s basically a prototype for today’s QR-codes). The terrible idea was that this gadget would spy on you. Also, it would only work with special barcodes that had to be licensed from the manufacturer. Also, it would only work on Windows.
But the manufacturer didn’t have the last word! Not at all. A couple of enterprising hardware hackers — Pierre-Philippe Coupard and Michael Rothwell — tore down a Cuecat, dumped its ROM, and produced their own driver for it — a surveillance-free driver that worked with any barcode. You could use it to scan the UPCs on your books or CDs or DVDs to create a catalog of your media; you could use it to scan UPCs on your groceries to make a shopping list. You could do any and every one of these things, because the Cuecat was yours.
Cuecat’s manufacturer, Digital Convergence, did not like this at all. They sent out legal demand letters and even shut down some of the repositories that were hosting alternative Cuecat firmware. They changed the license agreement that came with the Cuecat software CD to prohibit reverse-engineering.