Business cards are essential, but the form factor — and the business practices based on it — are stuck in the 20th century in their form. They take up room, are inherently difficult to organize, and come in all manners of shapes and sizes. At the same time, who has gone to a meeting, a conference, or even a PTA meeting, and not walked away with a dozen or more cards with names, email addresses, phone numbers, titles … information that later on, down the road, you may want or need to use.
If you are like me, you have no time to fool with keying in all this hypothetically useful information, and since I have no assistant just waiting to demonstrate 60 word per minute keyboard skills, the cards simply have been piling up over the past years. [In fact, in my case, I have been amassing cards on both coasts, since I have San Francisco and DC offices.]
I am aware that there may be services that will take this off your hands for a fee, and various applications that theoretically handle scanning and OCR of business cards, automatically putting contacts in your address book. I haven’t tried the former, but if it involves me mailing stuff to India or something, it’s just too much work. I have tried the scanner applications in the past, like Scanr, but I have never gotten anything like the OCR quality that would allow me to rely on them.
Enter The Cell Phone Camera
Not too long ago, I started an experiment. Since I have a five megapixel camera in my cell phone, why couldn’t I simply take pictures of business cards and then throw the cards away? That failed as an experiment, simply because there were still too many intermediate steps:
- Take the pictures.
- Transfer pictures from the cell phone to my Mac.
- Move the business card pictures to an appropriate folder on the Mac, or upload to a web service, like Flickr, and in either case, name the file the name of the person on it.
This is significantly less than the headaches involved with keying in all the data, but still too much work.
A few weeks ago, I bumped into a new application called Evernote that is the answer to my business card prayers. Evernote is both a desktop application for the Mac and a hosted website service, where users’ notes and images are synchronized between the two.
Not only does Evernote allow me to organize both text notes and pictures of all sorts of things into folders, it also has very sophisticated OCR capabilities, able to find words on pictures of oddly shaped objects — like pictures of wine bottles. This capability works handily with relatively flat things, like, no surprise, business cards.
I tested it by moving in all the business card images in that I had captured, and found an extremely high capability to find cards based on name, company name, zipcodes, and nearly anything else in the text. There are some glitches, but the success rate is very high.
The beauty of this approach is its ease. It’s so easy that I actually take pictures of people’s business cards when they hand them to me, and hand them back! After an event — like the recent Web 2.0 conference — I simply move the pictures to my Mac, and then drag any business card images into the Evernote Mac application. If I revert to actually bringing back cards from an event, I can either snap them with my cell phone, or use the Evernote Snapshot tool, which relies on the iSight webcam in my Mac to take pictures. These are not as high quality as I get with my phone, however, and as a result the search capabilities on these images is less reliable. I was recently advised that I could email images from my phone directly to the Evernote application, which I have yet to try.
I have boxes and boxes of business cards stockpiled, and I may never actually work through those. In fact, I recently just tossed several hundred cards that stretch back to the beginning of the Pleistocene. I did fish out a few, and snapped them, but mostly they went into the recycle bin. After all, people change phones and addresses frequently enough that a three-year-old business card is probably at least 50 percent wrong.
Note that I also can use this to take pictures of whatever I find of interest, or of critical importance, on the web. I could use it to take a screenshot of a LinkedIn profile, for example, in lieu of a person’s business card. As another example, today I screenshot a travel itinerary (via Skitch) and dragged it into Evernote, and I brought it back up by searching for ‘oakland’ and ‘friday’. I am also moving my loyalty cards into Evernote — like my Jetblue, KLM, and Expedia Elite cards — so I don’t have to schlep those around with me, either.
So don’t be too surprised when colleagues begin taking cell snapshots of your business card at the next mixer you attend, and then hand it back to you. They’ve probably gotten wise to Evernote.