Failing Forward
Even the most catastrophic debacle can lead to next-generation innovation.

When it comes to consumer technologies, I like to employ a simple litmus test: If it works for my four-year-old son and my 64-year-old mother, it’ll probably work for everyone. Take the Flip video camera, for instance: Turn it on, point it at something (hopefully interesting), press the big red button and suddenly you’re the next Martin Scorsese. Or the iPad: Press the “On” button, swipe your finger, and suddenly you’re … well, doing whatever grandmothers and preschoolers do on their iPads — playing games, fiddling with apps, consuming media.

What these mom- and kid-tested and approved gadgets have in common is that they weren’t necessarily the first to market. Pure Digital Technologies, makers of the Flip, initially introduced a rudimentary one-time-use camcorder sold at CVS stores and designed for direct conversion to DVD media. Meanwhile, the iPad can legitimately trace its roots back to Apple’s seminal but ill-fated Newton tablet. Save for a limited but cult following, neither device managed to gain much consumer interest and each was quickly dispatched to the dustbins of first-mover tech missteps.

Today, the Flip and the iPad are heralded as category innovators, but these seemingly ubiquitous tech tools likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day if not for the failure of their precursors. In our “every kid gets a prize” world, the notion of failure doesn’t get the respect that it rightly deserves. Most times, it seems, we learn more from our mistakes than from our triumphs.

That’s clearly the case when it comes to many marketing technologies. First isn’t always best, but it often lays the groundwork for future innovations that are even more useful (and successful) than their predecessors. Being second (or third or fourth) and learning from the prior mistakes of antecedents can be advantageous — transformational even.

In 2000, when I was working as the interactive editor at a national advertising trade publication, I experienced my first major brush with failure. Mind you, this wasn’t your everyday, garden-variety failure, but the kind of cringe-inducing, colossal failure that keeps you up at night. For 10 years.

My personal hair shirt was the :CueCat. Remember those things? Developed in the late 1990s by the now-defunct, Dallas-based tech company Digital:Convergence, the :CueCat was created to bridge the gap between print media and the web by employing a cat-shaped hand-held scanner (the eponymous :CueCat) that read unique bar codes on the printed page. Tethered to your computer keyboard like a mouse (yes, we groaned at the pun, too), the :CueCat directed print readers to supplemental web content, presumably stuff that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fit on the printed page.

The magazine group where I worked was one of the first (if not the first) print publications to sign on as a charter user of :CueCat’s technology, and the interactive news section that I edited was the guinea pig. Packaging the :CueCat-enabled news section involved embedding bar codes within all editorial and advertising pages; linking the Cues, as the bar codes were called, to web content — typically homepages; and then testing each bar code to ensure that readers landed on the correct websites.

Design considerations aside (the Cues were chunky and unattractive), the usability problems were immediately clear. How many readers actually read our magazine — any magazine — while they were sitting at their computers? Wasn’t the entire point of reading a magazine based on its portability? Why didn’t the :CueCat “read” the bar codes with one swipe and why did you need to swipe several times before it would work? How were you supposed to plug this thing into your computer keyboard if you didn’t have a PS/2 connection? And was it really such a big pay off — after you finally got to the Cue’d webpage — to see … the homepage of the publisher or advertiser with no context or reason for being there?

The :CueCat definitely wouldn’t pass the mom or kid litmus test. In fact, it didn’t pass any test for publishers or consumers and the :CueCat was quickly deemed a major flop — and the magazine where I worked had a serious case of egg-on-face. Subsequently, PCWorld Magazine named the :CueCat as one of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time,” while readers of tech blog Gizmodo voted the :CueCat as the No. 1 worst invention of the first decade of the 2000s. Ouch.

In the end, we featured Cue’d content in the pages of our magazine for three, maybe four, issues. In the usage reports I received from Digital:Convergence, I could see that three-quarters of the scanned bar codes were made by me — during testing. The rest … well, let’s just say there were a handful of reporters on my staff who were also assigned to test Cues.

Despite fairly wide distribution of :CueCat scanners (which publishers mailed to subscribers for free and Radio Shack gave away by the litter), and repeated promises by Digital:Convergence about the development of a mobile scanner that would be built into a Cross pen (which never materialized), :CueCat technology failed to spark much interest. In the harshest terms, one critic at the time said the :CueCat “failed to solve a problem which never existed.” Double ouch.

The thing is, like lots of revolutionary developments, it’s sometimes hard to recognize massive change when you’re in the middle of it. Yes, the :CueCat — like many early innovations — may have suffered from clumsy execution, poor timing or mismanaged introductions. And yes, the problem that the :CueCat was designed to solve (i.e., linking the analogue world with the digital world) may not have existed as acutely 10 years ago as it does today. (Remember, this was back in the days when the iPhone was still just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye.) But in many respects, the failure of the :CueCat deftly paved the way for some of today’s most innovative marketing technologies such as JagTag and ScanBuy, as well as mobile barcode scanner applications like RedLaser and StickyBits. And let’s not even get started on the thanks that QR codes owe to the ’Cat.

Ours is a culture that likes nothing more than to celebrate our wins — loudly and proudly — while we shuffle our less than successful attempts at glory into the dark corners of history, praying that no one will notice and hoping everyone will eventually forget. The nice thing about perspective, though, is that we can — and should — learn to acknowledge and even embrace our failures so that we can move on to something bigger and better.

A decade doesn’t seem like much time to pass, but in tech terms, it’s a lifetime. So in honor of the :CueCat, one of the worst technologies ever, thanks for failing so bad, in order that the next generation of marketing technologies could thrive.

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SIDEBAR: From the Ashes

KIPP CHENG is group director, corporate communications at G2 USA. Previously he served as an editor and reporter, covering consumer technology at Entertainment Weekly and marketing technology at Adweek.

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