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Business Cards Going Digital


"Here's my card." That's one of the most common three-word phrases in business--right up there with "Let's do lunch" and "I'm laid off." Even in this e-era, the lowly business card endures.

In fact, the business card has evolved along with the times.

There are virtual cards that can travel with e-mail messages and optical cards that can hold megabytes of information. Hand-held computer users routinely beam contact information to each other using infrared links. And a clever scanner and its accompanying Internet service have brought conventional cards into the digital age.

The virtual business card is made possible by an Internet standard called vCard. All current e-mail programs support the vCard standard, as do Palm- and PocketPC-based hand-helds and even some cell phones.

Once you store your contact information as a vCard--consult your e-mail program's online help to learn how--you can include the vCard as an attachment to your outgoing e-mail. If your e-mail recipients want to add you to their electronic address books, they can do so with a few mouse clicks.

Yahoo Inc.'s People Search, an online white pages service, also supports vCard. After you locate those long-lost friends, add their contact information to your little silicon book by saving it as a vCard.

The biggest problem with a virtual business card is that you can't put one in the hand of a prospective colleague.

Optical business cards bridge the physical and the digital, combining a printed name and address with enough storage space to hold video and audio clips, digital images or thousands of pages of text.

Optical business cards are essentially rectangular CD-ROMs: They're the same size as an ordinary business card, but can store about 50 MB of data.

Photographers and designers can distribute portfolios of their work, musicians can hand out demo discs, real estate agents can give away virtual tours of their listings, and salespeople can include catalogs in Portable Document Format.

CD business cards work in virtually any PC or Macintosh with a tray-loading CD mechanism. They can jam if you use them with a slot-loading CD drive--the kind that suck the CD into place.

Prices for CD business cards vary widely and are lower when you order large quantities. One replicator, Redmond, Wash.-based Isomedia Inc., charges 70 cents a card in quantities of 1,000, and 55 cents each in quantities of 5,000.

Most replicators also sell blank CD-R media that you can burn using your own CD burner, and many will preprint the blanks with your contact information.

Then there's that stack of paper business cards cluttering your desk drawer. Pitch them all, I say--but first, run them through Corex Technologies' $299 CardScan Executive 600c. This pint-sized scanner is smaller than a Rolodex and connects to the Universal Serial Bus port of a Windows PC. (It also works with Macs running Connectix Corp.'s VirtualPC.)

The CardScan's character-recognition software does an impressive job of deciphering complex card layouts and putting each piece of information in the correct place. Impressive, but occasionally imperfect. You'll want to proofread vital statistics such as numbers to make sure they're right.

In my tests, scanning a card took about 10 seconds. If you've written notes on the back of a card, you can scan it, too, and the CardScan software will save an image of your scrawl.

Once you've scanned a stack of cards, you can save the contacts in a variety of formats, including vCard.

You can bring them into your e-mail program's address book, beam them to your hand-held, or upload them to CardScan.Net, a free service that stores your contacts online so you can retrieve them from anywhere in the world. You can even view a MapQuest-generated map of any contact's address.

Try that with your Rolodex.

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