Business Cards are a Data Entry Task. Change it with NFC and QR Codes

When you give someone a business card, you’re giving them a data entry task. I suspect that most business cards end up in the top drawer of office desks or in a nice little pile somewhere behind computer monitors, where they will live out their days, with their data remaining only on the thin piece of cardboard it came on.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Many smart phones, including current BlackBerry 10 (and some BB OS7 devices) and Android phones come complete with Near Field Communication (NFC), a technology standard where a smartphone can read data from chips in other NFC equipped phones or devices with an embedded NFC chip by tapping the chip to the phone or bringing it into close proximity. Sadly the iPhone is still lacking this feature, although will inevitably get it in a future release. There is an older technology called Quick Response (QR) Codes, which all smartphones can use, which use a barcode like image that is scanned in by the camera – but more on QR Codes later.

With an NFC enabled business card, your business card no longer presents a chore, as with a tap of the card to a modern smartphone, and all of your contact details can be entered into your new contact’s phone, or their contact details in yours. Without yet having an NFC enabled business card, I can personally use a BlackBerry Z10 to transmit my contact details to another smart phone user by bringing up my own contact, and telling my Z10 to share the contact by NFC, and tapping it against another NFC enabled phone, or add another BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) user by tapping our BlackBerry devices together.

It’s doubtful that the physical token of a business card will disappear, as if you already have a lot of contacts, and if you’re meeting a lot of people (or have had a few drinks), it can be difficult to remember who’s details you just tapped and entered, and the physical card will help you piece it all together.

There are a couple of ways you can go about using your contact details with NFC. You can have a vCard contact file stored directly to a chip embedded in your business card. If you do this, the person you hand your card to can just grab the details directly off the card with a tap, without the need for an Internet connection, which isn’t such an issue in our always connected smartphones. The downside of this is that much like the details printed on the card, once the data is embedded, it’s there to stay – permanently.

Perhaps a smarter way of dealing with the data is to just provide a web link to your vCard file, which when tapped, will grab your contact details from the Internet. If you change positions in the company or change contact details, your details can be updated in your online vCard, and simply be updated by anyone already holding your now-outdated business card, by re-tapping it against their smartphone. While this may seem the better option, maintaining dynamic information online comes at an infrastructure cost. Your vCard would always have to be located at the exact same location on an Internet server, or have a URL forwarder that then points to the current location of the vCard. This will not help you if you move companies or organisations, unless you self manage your vCard and Internet file location – if your company would allow this, or if they are blissfully unaware of any of this new technology. If you can get away with it, and have some tech knowledge, you could change companies and still have your card point to your new contact details with just a re-tap. Early adopters will be able to get away with it, but don’t expect companies to let this slide in the future.

NFC business cards can be designed and purchased today. One of the few providers of this is http://www.tapmy.biz/ , which have prices starting at USD $98 for 50 cards ($1.96 per card), which is a reasonable starting point. You may not give NFC cards to everyone at first, and might just want to test the waters on how much they’re used.

All current smartphones can read Quick Response (QR) Codes, which can contain the same sort of data that an NFC tag contains, although instead of using a radio frequency to transmit the data, you read the data with the camera on your phone and an associated app. These are cheaper than NFC tags, although are not as capable, except for being able to be read by more phone models, although NFC will catch up.

To read a QR Code, you have to have reasonable lighting conditions and be holding your phone still for long enough for the camera to focus and capture the code. A QR Code requires a barcode like symbol, and the more data contained within it, the bigger it will likely have to be. The more data the code has to convey, the mode detailed and more pixels being crammed into the code, and the more detailed a code, the more difficult it is for the code to be scanned, and a higher likelihood of the data being misread and corrupted on the receiving end. These are the kind of problem that NFC does not present.

Although you have the option of creating a QR Code that contains an entire vCard, due to the complexity of the code, it is best to link to a vCard stored on an Internet server. Better yet, your QR Code should contain a shortened URL, as available through many operators. Perhaps the best URL shortener is Google’s, at http://goo.gl/ . When shortening a URL with Google, it will also generate a QR Code for the link, and if you create the QR Code while logged into your Google Account, you can track clicks over time period, referrer, browser, country, and platform. The one weakness of Google’s system is that the code is static and can not change the destination address once it is created. A system that allows for ‘Dynamic’ QR Codes is operated by Kaywa at http://qrcode.kaywa.com/ . To be able to create dynamic codes, you need to subscribe to their service at a minimum of USD $15 a month, which is a bit steep for the infrequent use case presented here.

It is possible to self-manage a dynamic service with a shortener, particularly through an option in Google Apps hosting, if you’re willing to go through the work of creating a domain (preferably a very short one), and hosting the vCard on a server of your choosing. By handling the domain side, you could always update the destination reference. There are other ways of managing the hosting of vCards and URL shorteners with dynamic QR Codes, although if you’re seriously considering other options, you probably already possess the tech skills to do it.

Below are some examples of QR Codes containing different data, showing the complexity differences. You may scan these codes with your phone to see the differences in how they work.

If your smart phone or tablet has trouble scanning any of the below codes, you can click on them for a larger scale image.

QR-Link-to-vcf

QR Code – Link to a vCard (full URL)

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/88543587/John%20Smith.vcf

QR-Link-to-vcf-URL-Shortened

URL shortened QR Code link to a vCard

http://goo.gl/v1ikc

QR-VCF-Contact

QR Code with an embedded vCard

QR-Link-warrenhudson-com

QR Code of a website link

vCard contains demonstration data only.

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