Last year, PC World published a roundup of what it roundly denounced as "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time." To make this ignominious list, the software or the gadget had to have been among "the worst of the worst - operating systems that operated badly, hardware that never should have left the factory, applications that spied on us and fed our data to shifty marketers, and products that left a legacy of poor performance and bad behavior."
None of these sorry specimens was directly related to print production, but one came close enough to the print realm to serve as a story with a moral. This was #20 on the list, the CueCat, a device that I saw at one of the old Seybold shows in 1999 or 2000.
The CueCat was a bar code reader with a slinky feline shape and a cord for attaching to your PC. You were supposed to swipe the CueCat over product codes embedded in magazine ads that you looked at while connected to the Internet. The swipe then would whisk you directly to the related page in that advertiser's Web site, doing away with the need to type URLs in a browser. The business model, if I recall correctly, involved giving away the CueCat free to readers and selling code placements to advertisers with a cut for the publishers.
PC World skinned the CueCat - off the market since the end of 2001, but said to be available on eBay - for its clumsiness and its alleged data-security flaws. In fairness, the idea behind it wasn't without merit: wouldn't we all like to eliminate the drudgery of keystroking from the routine of accessing Web-based content? The concept's problem was that it was heading in the wrong direction "print to Web" when most of movement between the two media already was pointing the other way. The market for Web-to-print solutions enabling print buyers to place and manage orders on line was where the real action was and continues to be. It was a trend to which miscues like the CueCat simply weren't relevant.
Of course, in the 1999-2000 time frame, CueCat had plenty of company in misreading the signals. The printing industry's enactment of the dot-com meltdown was replete with failures by Web-to-print ventures that either didn't get or thought they could rewrite the rules of engagement between printers and their customers. Impresse, MediaFlex, Collabria, DAX, Vio, and 58k.com - all of them ended as assets of other companies or just as names barely remembered today.
But others had a keener sense of what would and wouldn't fly in promoting Web-to-print. Covering an On Demand expo soon after the Seybold event at which I saw the CueCat, I interviewed a representative of a fledgling company called Four51, at that time a vendor of online tools for print brokers. I remember thinking that Four51's technology was, for a change, an e-commerce solution I could understand. I was also struck by the notion that it was something print professionals might actually want to buy. Four51 is still very much with us today, providing (among many other things) the e-commerce underpinnings of Kodak's MarketMover network for Kodak-equipped vendors of digital print services.
Four51's success proves that good ideas can arise from the same set of circumstances that produces notably poor ones like the CueCat. By the way, the #1 all-time bad idea in PC World's litany of losers is America Online. If you agree with the editors (as I do) that AOL deserves to be dubbed "the online service for people who don't know any better," it may be a warning that sometimes, bad ideas can get worse and still flourish. But never, ever in the printing industry.