"Do you have a business card?"
I wince every time somebody asks me this, as happened recently at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.
When I exchange business cards with someone I feel like I'm engaging in quaintly obsolete ritual -- like using a spittoon or listening to one of those ancient, hand-cranked record players with the giant horn on top.
We've given up the spittoon and Victrola long ago, yet business cards live on.
A business card is a solid-state storage technology that emerged historically somewhere between clay tablets and wax cylinders.
This obsolete medium exists awkwardly in a world in which all of us carry what used to be considered supercomputers in our pockets, and which can transmit wirelessly the equivalent of a million business cards of data every few seconds.
The data on the cards always starts out electronic. Then somebody prints it, hands it out, then somebody else has to re-enter the data into an electronic system again so it can be put to use.
Business card data starts and ends as electronic information, and we all have the means to transfer that information instantly. Yet business cards still exist.
Currently, nobody agrees on how to exchange information. Some simply exchange business cards.
I've noticed that a shocking number of people exchange information via email. One person says: give me your email address, I'll shoot you a note and when you reply we'll have each other's contact information.
Others do something similar via text.
And still others just write down a name with the intent of Googling them later.
The solution is obvious, and has the following characteristics:
* Standards based so everyone can exchange data regardless
* Instant and wireless, so pushing a button or two on a smartphone zaps business card data in both directions
* Persistently linked, so that when you get a new phone number, my contact entry for you updates as well.
Major innovation in the business card replacement racket
One solution to the problem of transferring business card data from paper two electronic database is to use QR codes on the paper business cards.
The idea is that a barcode-like pattern is printed on your card, and by using a QR-code reading app, the data doesn't have to be entered manually. But this only solves a small part of the larger business card problem.
One promising technology for electronic business cards is near field communication technology or NFC.
Like Bluetooth, NFC is designed to enable data to be exchanged between two devices without traveling over the Internet. The benefit of NFC for privacy-centric applications, such as for the exchange of business card data, is that it's very short range. Two phones exchange information with each other would have to be touching. That eliminates the need to choose the contact from a list of other people in the room. Each party just fires up an app, presses a button and the contact information is exchanged.
In addition to the hardware, both parties need apps that use the NFC chips to exchange business card information, and those apps need to be compatible somehow.
In a perfect world, NFC would kill the paper business card. But one company wants NFC to save it.
Moo.com recently unveiled a paper business card with an NFC chip built in. You order the cards, then use an Android app to program your cards with your contact information.
Called NFC by Moo, the app is available now, but the cards won't be available until April. Pricing has not been announced.
Another company called intelliPaper embeds your business card data into a USB drive that's built into their paper business cards. You have to tear the card up in order to expose the USB contact points, which won't fly in Asian culture that are sensitive about the respect shown to business cards.
One odd solution is called CardMunch. It's an application that works with LinkedIn that lets you snap a camera phone picture of each business card, then CardMunch grabs the email and name from the business card and sends that person an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. What's surprising about this company is that they use human beings to extract the contact data.
A service called Icon came out of beta this week, and bills itself as "the smart digital business card for the modern professional." In fact it's more of a social media profile.
You add your business card-like contact information, but also information designed to gain control of your online reputation, some biographical information and even personal information. It gives your analytics about who checks your icon.me profile.
The downside is that both parties need the app. You can send a link via email, but they need to install the app to get your data.
SociaLink is not really a business card replacement, but more of a way for two people to follow each other on 1, 2, 3 or 4 social networks — which you select at the point of exchange. Another interesting approach is a new feature called Livecards of an existing product called Cobook.
The idea is that you fill out your own contact information in your own Livecard interface, which exists both in mobile apps and on a desktop version, and you connect to other people using the app. When you update your contact information it's automatically updated in the Livecards of people you connected with.
It also links into both Facebook and LinkedIn to keep that contact data up-to-date as well.
One of the most elegant and practical ways to digitize business cards and transfer that data is Evernote Hello— at least if you're an Evernote user.
Available for both iPhones and Android phones, Evernote Hello lets you take a picture of someone's business card, which populates its contacts database. Best of all, when both people are using Evernote Hello, you can exchange contact information via sound — no wireless protocol required — you just have to be within earshot.
Most of the solutions are great, and will work very well if everyone would buy into them. The trouble is, everyone won't.
What we need is a solution so dominant that everybody uses it, or a standard that multiple solutions use where data could be easily exchanged across different products.
That's why I find it astounding that a company like Facebook hasn't come up with a business card replacement solution. Enough people use Facebook so that if they were to launch such feature, it could become the standard.
Professionals might feel uncomfortable using Facebook as their business card, which is why LinkedIn should put less effort into trying to be a social network, and more effort into trying to replace business cards.
Google recently revamped their contacts system. It's a little better, but the company still isn't trying to replace business cards in any serious way.
The prospect of replacing business cards with a universal digital standard looks grim. The companies that are trying to bring about this transformation through innovation are too small to become the standard, and the companies that are big enough to do it don't seem to want to.
Still, of all these methods, ordinary dumb paper business cards are the worst.
That's why I'm never going to exchange another business card. Maybe if enough of us stop the insanity, we can finally abandon this barbaric, wasteful and idiotic transfer of personal data on plant fiber once and for all, and transfer contact information instantly and wirelessly.