Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An old idea has a new future

Back in the late 1990s, at roughly the same time as the advent of the ill-fated :CueCat, my employer invested in a failed technology called "GoCode." Both of these devices had the same goal: to connect print readers easily to the Web. :CueCat was a bigger flop because it had a bigger footprint, but I'm sticking with the GoCode scanner system because I got up close and personal with it.

Here's how it was supposed to work: Newspapers would take the URLs for content related to individual stories and enter them into an encoder. The encoder was supposed to produce a tiny bar code that could be attached to the end of printed newspaper stories. Newspaper readers, in turn, were supposed to be able to take their free "GoCode wands," drag them over the tiny bar codes, and delight in being transported to related content on the Web.

Got it? Four items: 1. Printed content; 2. Web content; 3. A printed bar code for the Web content URL; 4. A bar code scanner that was supposed to connect print to the Web via a personal computer.

GoCode, like :CueCat, was a dismal failure. I could see it was doomed the first time we received training in how to use the encoder: Instead of giving editors the ability to link to valuable related content (full texts of speeches, budget databases, etc.), what they delivered came with a menu of useless content that we really couldn't edit or expand. Then the 100 "test" wands never got distributed. Our company grabbed some industry headlines for our innovative attempt at modernity, but GoCode was DOA. We never even bothered to announce its demise.

Why did GoCode/:CueCat fail?
  1. Failed to understand how people use the Web;
  2. Required that you read sitting at your computer;
  3. Required special hardware;
  4. Required special generating hardware/software;
  5. Required user-end software;
  6. Cheap device never achieved scale;
  7. Device was pre-USB 2.0 and required special pin-porting;
  8. Media companies that didn't understand the Web were sold on these technologies by huckster companies that were long on promises and short on delivery;
  9. The timing was all wrong (Dot.com bust);
  10. Didn't empasize content quality.
After these disasters, the print publishing industry has been uninterested in anything similar. Consequently, even the act of printing meaningful URLs has been daunting. I taught the people at my newspaper to use www.tinyurl.com, and it's also true that some Web content providers have gotten somewhat better about generating logical (and shorter) URLs. But let's face it: once you get past the root domain name, people start turning you off if they've got to type in the address.

Which is why it's time for a bright technologist and a smart media company to start developing the next generation of URL scanner. Because the technology that made this idea workable has been on the market since June.

The iPhone.

Connecting print to Web -- mobile
The cellphone -- not the PC -- is the proper device for taking print readers from page to pixel, and the development of a cell phone with an imaging device AND a functional Web display is the next-to-last hardware development task required to make this idea work.

The final step: Add a laser/infrared scanner capability to all smart phones.

So here's how it would work:
  1. All print publication automate the creation of URL bar codes, so that any URL mentioned in the pub is accompanied by a tiny bar-code icon;
  2. Smart phone users who want to see Web content mentioned in print wave their phone over the icon;
  3. Scanner on the back of the phone decodes the URL, opens the phone's browser and displays the content.
Other uses should be obvious: All display and classified advertisements would come with an appropriate icon; printed maps and directions would have icons for related attractions, restaurants, etc.; Business cards would display the bar code. On so on.

Could you add a scanner to your computer? Sure. It's a simple USB device. But that's not the killer app: People who are mobile need simple, quick access to the Web. And in 10 years we're ALL going to be mobile. All the time.

But what's the business model?
I was never clear how we were supposed to make money off GoCode. But I know how to make money off what I'm describing.

Advertising and licensing.

The advertising stream: So maybe before this system displays your page it flashes up a targeted advertisement -- it's topical, because you could code keywords into the icon, and it's local, because the cell phone carrier can read where you're transmitting based on which repeater has picked up your outgoing signal.

So that's a premium ad spot: Local and targeted, with algorithms that serve up well-suited commercial info.

Could the user get a version of this with extra features and no ad support? Absolutely: It's a freemium feature in the making.

And finally, licensing: If I develop this tech and offer it for free to users, how hard will it be for me to charge all print publishers a small licensing fee for using the software and/or hardware we give them to handle the encoding?

The Web is based on clicking. If we had to type every URL, the Web wouldn't be the Web. A cellphone that scans and displays URLs extends that power from the traditional PC to the extended network.

It makes sense for cell users. It makes sense for publishers. And it has an easy business model.

Anybody want to pick this up?