Dan Frommer over at Silicon Alley Insider reports that Google’s latest effort to break into newspaper ad sales includes printed barcodes that can be scanned by readers to send them to web sites. That sounds very similar to failed plans of late-90s Internet/technology startup Digital Convergence, who saw their :CueCat barcodes appear in newspapers and magazines all over the US in 2000 to a fairly indifferent response by users.
To be fair, Google’s barcodes do have one major difference: they don’t require a separate piece of hardware. One of the biggest hurdles to :CueCat’s adoption was that it required people to buy a :CueCat reader (and handheld barcode scanner). Though they were often subsidized by the newspapers who had deals with Digital Convergence (or perhaps by Digital Convergence itself — I was never really clear on that), they still never really caught on with users. With the proliferation of cell phone cameras, however, Google can count on users being able to scan codes with a device they already own.
Another change since the late-90s when :CueCat made its debut is that users are less concerned about companies harvesting information about the sites they visit. One of the main concerns many users had with the original :CueCat, was that Digital Convergence could theoretically compile a database of every web site people visited by scanning barcodes in newspapers and link it to personally identifiable information (since each reader had to be registered).
These days, it is generally accepted that Google already knows all about which web sites we visit, and many users voluntarily share their bookmarks, lists of their possessions, and their entire life stories on social media sites like del.icio.us, LibraryThing, or Facebook. So privacy concerns might be less of a hurdle for Google this time around.
Of course, that’s not to say that Google will have no issues rolling its printed barcodes out to consumers. In order to make these ads attractive to advertisers, they need to get the software onto the phones of a large audience — that means making deals with handset manufacturers and mobile carriers, which as Frommer points out, means figuring out how to split up the revenue pie.
Google might have an easier time selling the idea of scannable printed URLs this time around, but I’m not holding my breath. Eventually, as in Japan where they are very popular, these types of scannable barcodes could offer a lot more functionality than just sending you to a web site — like sending you relevant coupons or allowing you to pay for services.
Note: It looks like I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of the :CueCat (actually, I suspect most people around in the late-90s were). A number of commenters to Frommer’s post have also discussed it. As Henry Blodget chimes in, “Digital Convergence (owner of Cuecat) was the single worst idea I heard in Bubble 1.0–and that’s saying a lot.” It sure is…