Business cards are the scourge of anyone trying to go paperless. Sure, the basic concept is brilliant: A business card provides a compact, easily transferable storage location for all of the key data about another person. But it's a mystery to me why the traditional paper business card, a descendant of the 17th-century visiting card, seems to hang on so tenaciously, at a time when other manifestations of our old paper culture -- snail mail, personal checks, faxes, newspapers, magazines, books -- are fading away so rapidly.
For more than a decade now, the digital world has offered perfectly good -- in fact, better -- alternatives to the paper business card, yet companies like VistaPrint
I'm open to all arguments about why paper business cards still proliferate. Maybe they're the last relic of the gift economy that, according to anthropologists, is so important to the social fabric of some cultures. Maybe, to get all neuroscience-y about it, there's something physical about business cards that facilitates spatial or tactile reasoning about our social connections -- sort of the way air traffic controllers still keep track of incoming planes by sliding around little blocks of wood.
I have no idea. But in this column, I'm going to write about a few of the ways I've explored for digitizing and managing my own mess of business cards, in hopes of helping others escape the madness. Here they are, in order of my least favorite to most favorite:
The worst option: Card scanners. When I joined my previous employer, MIT's Technology Review magazine, I found a business card scanner in a desk drawer. I hooked it up to my Windows laptop, loaded up the software on the accompanying CD-ROM, and scanned in a bunch of cards. The software used optical character recognition (OCR) to digitize the text, and spit out a vCard file that could be imported into my Outlook address book. The system did a pretty impressive job of assigning each piece of information -- name, title, company, phone number, address, email address -- to the right data field.
But there were two problems. Feeding the cards into the scanner was a tedious, manual process. (I know there are card scanners with automatic feeders, but the magazine hadn't sprung for one of these). On top of that, the OCR accuracy was terrible. Every single vCard file required manual corrections. This was back in 2002, so I'm sure the technology has improved somewhat. But I gave up in the end. The chances that I would actually need to refer to the data someday, I reasoned, weren't high enough to justify the amount of time required to scan the cards and correct the entries. Plus, it seemed to me that if you're going to buy a machine to automate something, you'd really like it to handle the whole process, without constant tending by a human.
A somewhat better option: Flatbed scanning and/or photography + Evernote. When the online notekeeping service Evernote came along in 2008, one of its signature features was the ability to do OCR on images and PDF files. That meant you could upload a picture or a scan of a business card, and Evernote would index the text and make it searchable, just like any purely digital document. I experimented with this feature by lining up a bunch of business cards on a flatbed scanner -- about a dozen at a time (which is how many cards fit into an area the size of an 8.5×11-inch sheet of paper). I'd scan them at medium resolution, then upload the finished JPEG file to Evernote.
The method worked well, within certain limitations. As long as I knew what bit of text I was looking for, such as a name, I could always use Evernote's search box to get back to the image with the relevant card, where I'd find the associated phone number or email address.
But while the scanning part of this procedure was 12 times faster than using the card-scanning machine, I was still pretty lazy, and I wanted to see if I could speed it up even more. So my next experiment was to lay out a whole bunch of cards across my desk, about 30 at a time. I used my digital camera to take photographs at the highest resolution possible, then uploaded the photos to Evernote. Same result -- nicely indexed images.
I should note that there are at least two companies, Cambridge, MA-based OfficeDrop (formerly known as Pixily) and Durham, NC-based Shoeboxed, that will handle all this scanning stuff for you. You just mail them an envelope full of business cards or other papers, and they'll scan it and dump it into your Evernote account, or anywhere else you like. But these services can be a bit pricey -- Shoeboxed starts at $9.95 per month for up to 50 business cards, and OfficeDrop starts at $4.95 per month.
And whether you're doing the scanning yourself or outsourcing it, the real downfall of this method is that you end up with images, not nicely parsed data that you can import into your digital address book or contact list. That's OK if you just want to look up information, but if you want to do anything with it, such as cutting and pasting, you're out of luck.
The second best option: Mobile business card scanning apps. Apparently, it's pretty easy these days to build a mobile app that will use a smartphone's internal camera to snap a picture of a business card, then do some OCR on it and output a vCard file or the equivalent -- because there are at least 30 such apps for the Apple
I've been testing two of these programs, ScanBizCards and ScanR. I like both of these apps, which together illustrate the range of capabilities available in mobile card-scanning software. I'll talk first about ScanR, which is by far the simpler of the two. It's a very simple app where you 1) take a picture of a business card, 2) enter an email address, 3) there is no third step -- that's it. The app processes the card, turns it into a vCard file, and emails it within a few minutes to the address you provided. From there, you can download the file and import it into the contact-list software or CRM system of your choice. (I use Apple's basic Address Book app on my Mac, which synchs with the same app on my iPhone and iPad.) In my tests, ScanR did its job perfectly -- I never had to make a correction.
With ScanBizCards, you start out the same way, but you have about two dozen cool added features to play with. More than a simple card scanner, this app is really a mobile contact manager. Once you've snapped a picture and the app finishes doing OCR on the card image, it lets you immediately correct any misrecognized text. (Note: most of the business card scanning apps for the iPhone require an iPhone 3GS or an iPhone 4. The lenses on earlier iPhones couldn't take clear close-up pictures.) You can add notes and custom fields to each record, and then you can put the info right into your phone's address book, where it will be copied over to your computer at the next time you synch. There's a cloud storage option -- ScanBizCards will copy your card data to its own servers for safekeeping -- and the app also connects to Evernote, allowing you to send card images straight into your notebooks.
One nice thing about ScanBizCards is that it hangs on to the original card images, and lets you search them or browse through them using a Cover Flow-like interface. And unlike Evernote, it makes the data on these images "actionable" -- for example, you can touch a phone number on an image to make a phone call or touch an email address on a card image to compose an email. (One feature I love: if you're running ScanBizCards on your iPad or iPod Touch, it automatically fires up Skype for phone calls.) On top of all that, ScanBizCards gives you a one-button way to do the standard things you should do after receiving a business card, such as sending an intro email with your own contact info, sending the info on to a friend, sending a LinkedIn connection request, or creating a calendar reminder to follow up with the person. I'd say that's a lot of features for a $6.99 app.
The best option of all: Bump. OK, this one is cheating, because it doesn't involve paper business cards at all -- and maybe that's the point of all this. Bump is a massively popular app for iPhones and Android phones that lets you transfer data from one device to another by literally bumping them together. (The way Bump explains this, the accelerometers in each device detect the bump; the company's algorithms match up devices that felt the same bump at the same time and transfer the information from the sending device to the receiving device via the Internet and wireless networks.) Currently, Bump can transfer contact cards, calendar events, photos, and Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter handles.
The "contact card" is the part that could finally make the paper business card obsolete. The bumper can select any contact from his address book -- most often, of course, it will be his own -- and, upon bumping, that data will show up immediately in the bumpee's address book. (Of course, the Bump app has to be running on both devices for this to work.) You can even bump an Android phone with an iPhone without causing a matter-antimatter explosion.
I love Bump, in part because it harkens back to the "beaming" feature of the old Palm line of PDAs. Starting with the Palm III in 1998, these devices had infrared ports that let you send address book and datebook entries from one Palm PDA to another wirelessly. I collected quite a few virtual business cards this way, back in the day, and beaming was one of the features that made me a Palm devotee for nearly a decade. I was still using a Palm Treo 650 as my cell phone up to mid-2007, when I switched to the iPhone, and it always puzzled me that you couldn't do the same thing with the Apple devices. Well, now you can, and it's even better.
If I were a bit more of an iconoclast, I'd stop taking or giving out cards altogether and insist that all of my new acquaintances Bump with me. But that would probably be bad etiquette. For now, those of us pursuing paperlessness will have to stick with a combination of old-fashioned and newfangled methods for managing our contact information. Including that old standby -- the shoebox full of dog-eared business cards.
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