Business cards go digital

/ Source: Forbes

Dave Stevens is a consummate networker. As program and events manager for the Chamber of Commerce in Mountain View, Calif., he attends several events a week, collecting stacks of business cards. When he returns to his office, however, he pitches the cards, opting instead to add his new contacts on the corporate social networking site LinkedIn.

"If I'm connected to someone on LinkedIn, I'll always have a way of finding them," says Stevens. "If you rely on a business card and the person moves on, you'll get nothing but a bounced e-mail." The updated information travels with Stevens via a mobile version of LinkedIn that syncs his new connections to the address book on his Palm Pre smart phone.

Stevens isn't the only person tossing business cards into wastebaskets. Frustrated with the limitations of paper, workers around the globe are experimenting with digital ways to exchange contact information. Entrepreneurs, in turn, are racing to develop Web sites and mobile software that ease the process.

Since card-swapping generally occurs away from desks and computers, most of the proposed solutions are mobile applications. One example is DUB, a service for sharing mobile business cards that is available on BlackBerrys and iPhones, as well as handsets that run Microsoft's Windows Mobile and Google's Android operating systems. DUB's digital cards resemble paper ones, but are interactive, with support for active links to profiles on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

To connect, DUB users simply press a "locate" button in the application. It uses global positioning technology (GPS) to match users, then stores the cards' contact information in the phone's address book. If a DUB user wants to connect to a non-member, he or she can send a digital invitation.

Building relationships
Manoj Ramnani, founder of DUB's parent, DubMeNow, estimates that 500 people download the application every hour onto BlackBerrys on days it is featured in BlackBerry App World. (It helps that the application is free.) In coming weeks, the 14-month-old company plans to unveil an application for Nokia's Symbian platform, expand internationally, announce deals with a large group of universities, associations and tradeshows and release more Web-based tools, including desktop widgets and a toolbar for Microsoft Outlook. Within several years, Ramnani hopes DUB will be the mobile address book of choice, with full support from wireless carriers.

The idea isn't far-fetched, says Adam Nash, LinkedIn's vice president of search and platform products. "Business cards are a bad proxy for what people really want [when they network], which is a relationship," notes Nash. "We can do so much better than these static snapshots in time."

LinkedIn is also angling to be the de facto way people exchange contact information on phones. It currently offers iPhone and Palm applications and will introduce one for the BlackBerry soon, according to Nash.

People who don't own smartphones or don't want to deal with downloadable applications can also go digital. Several companies, including a Denver-based startup called Contxts, let people exchange credentials by text message, using usernames and online profiles. "Business cards are so 2007," says Contxts founder Danny Newman. "Our goal is to be the simplest way to exchange contact data." The service, which has close to 100,000 "alpha" users, is still in a test phase but will open to the public by March.

Scanning cards
There are also a burgeoning number of scanning applications for people who don't mind collecting business cards, but want to digitally store the data on them. These applications rely on phone cameras and special software to capture names and numbers off paper cards.

Several scanning applications can decipher a type of technology known as 2-D barcodes that encodes images and text in a pictoral barcode format. That can be useful because some companies, such as Nokia, print 2-D barcodes on their business cards.

The most unusual response to the business card conundrum may be token-based business cards. Companies like Switzerland's Poken and Mingle360 in the U.S. sell small, plastic devices that beam data through wireless sensors (RFID and infrared). To transmit information, users point or touch their devices. The tokens generally cost around $20 and can clip to a keychain or work badge.

Eventually, business card data could be infused into various gadgets just as wireless connectivity is being embedded in a range of electronics. Poken founder Stephane Doutriaux plans to apply Poken's technology to other devices, including jewelry and accessories. "Maybe you'll touch your earring to someone's watch or belt buckle," he says. "The ability to connect could be in anything."