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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Apps bring business cards into the 21st century

Have you noticed how, in our increasingly digital era, we still hand each other scraps of paper when we first meet?

These little rectangles accumulate in pockets, purses, and desk drawers. In the 20th century, we knew what to do with them: staple them to other pieces of paper and insert those pieces into a device called a Rolodex. The number of Rolodexes on a person’s desk was an indicator of power and influence.

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In the 21st century, though, we want phone numbers and e-mail addresses to be digitally accessible. I have been exploring the best ways to accomplish that - by scanning cards, photographing them with a mobile phone, mailing them to someone else to deal with, or trying to avoid exchanging cards entirely. The only strategy I have eschewed is typing the information in myself.

It was a Cambridge company, CardScan, that in 1994 introduced one of the first desktop scanning devices for business cards; now the company is part of the Newell Rubbermaid conglomerate. The least expensive CardScan device sells for $159. It occupies precious desktop real estate, and you will still have to do a bit of data jiggering after the scan, since the software doesn’t always put names, titles, and companies into the proper fields.

But cheap software is starting to create big problems for the scanner business. A number of mobile apps, some available free of charge, allow you to use the camera on a newer iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android phone to snap photos of business cards. The apps then either try to recognize the characters, enlist a human to type in the card text, or both.

CardMunch tops the card app list, because it does a great deal, and it’s free. Unfortunately, it’s only available for the iPhone, with no plans announced for an Android version.

Given a decent picture of a business card, CardMunch not only returns perfect data in the proper fields, but it also tries to find the person’s profile on LinkedIn, the business networking site. (LinkedIn bought the company in January 2011.) The app gives you the ability to connect with the person via LinkedIn, and also to export their contact info to your iPhone’s address book.

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Why does it work so well? CardMunch doesn’t bother trying to automatically recognize the text on the card; instead it sends the digital image to an army of self-employed typists around the world who act as your outsourced secretaries in exchange for a few pennies per card. To ensure accuracy, each card is typed in by as many as four workers, and the results compared. CardMunch promises a 24-hour turnaround time, though the actual results can be much quicker.

One of the hybrid apps, priced at $6.99, is ScanBizCards. It first tries to decipher the text on a card. Then, you can either make the corrections and fill in any missing data, or you can request that someone else do it for you. (The app comes with a couple of free transcription credits; after that, transcriptions cost 18 cents per card.) When the app failed to notice that a person’s office was in Cambridge, and missed the company’s name because it was printed as a swirly logo, I requested a transcription. It came back within 10 minutes, with everything entered perfectly.

A similar app, CamCard, is also $6.99, but it doesn’t include the human transcription option. Both CamCard and ScanBizCards back up a copy of your data on their secure websites, and they also both offer free versions of their apps that have limited functionality.

If a giant paper stack is rising skyward on your desk, and you don’t have a spare day to spend acting like the Annie Leibovitz of the business card, CloudContacts is a solid option. You toss the business cards you would like to have digitized into an envelope, mail them to the company, and they scan and correct them for you. You can then download a file from CloudContacts’ website that can be imported into whatever software you use for managing your contacts. (CloudContacts will even transcribe notes you have written on the back of a card - as long as they are legible.) The company charges $29.95 to digitize 100 cards. You can request that CloudContacts return the paper cards once they have been digitized. But why would you?

I’ve had little luck with avoiding the paper swap entirely and going digital. Yes, there’s a mobile app called Bump that allows you to exchange contact info by bumping fists with another person while you are both holding your phones. It works wonderfully - as long as both of you have already installed the app. Otherwise, a simple five-second trade of business cards turns into a five-minute process of searching for the Bump app, downloading it, and setting it up.

Connecting to a new person via the LinkedIn mobile app is another option. But it can be a pain to type in someone’s name to search for them while you are also chatting, and forging a LinkedIn link seems to imply a stronger relationship than just, “I met you at a cocktail party and perhaps I’ll start sending you my quarterly company e-newsletter.’’

If you keep up with cards and scan them as you get them, any of the mobile apps will probably work just fine. If you let them accumulate and don’t have time to process them, it’s hard to beat the CloudContacts solution.

Talking with Sid Viswanathan, cofounder of CardMunch, it struck me that paper business cards may be like handshakes - a central and ineradicable part of the ritual of meeting someone new. Viswanathan agreed.

“We’ve been very focused on not breaking the social protocol of exchanging business cards,’’ says Viswanathan, who is now a product manager at LinkedIn. “Even though the mobile device is becoming the center of your contact universe, the new Rolodex, it still seems like the most frictionless way to exchange information today is the business card.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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