I write for a blog called TeleRead.org, all about e-books. And as much as I might write there about e-stuff replacing or at least supplementing p-stuff, there’s one paper thing that I use quite often that electronic media has yet to replace: the humble business card.
Those who, like me, first got into e-book reading back in the ‘90s, when the Palm Pilot was at the height of its popularity, might also remember how the infra-red beamer on it was supposedly the latest and greatest thing that was going to replace business cards forever.*
It was the geeky equivalent of a handshake: point your Palms at each other and hold down the “contact” button. Zap! And you could even buy a business card scanner peripheral for your Palm, for those poor benighted souls who weren’t hip enough to have a PDA yet. (You can still get them, but now they’re more useful for cloud-data-storage services like Evernote.)
There was even a silly TV commercial about two people meeting in passing trains and beaming contact information before they were parted.
But it never really caught on—after all, most people didn’t have Palms—and infra-red beaming went out of style when Bluetooth came in. (I don’t know whether current Palm models even have an IR port anymore.)
And although my cell phone will allow me to send contact details via Bluetooth, the other person would have to put his device in pairing mode, and then I would have to find them, and so on.
In the end, it is much simpler just to hand over this simple rectangle of pasteboard.
I suppose it’s the geek in me that thinks of a business card as being like a physical representation of an e-mail .signature (rather than the other way around—I was using e-mail first, after all). It certainly has all or most of the same things on it: the blogs I write for and podcasts I’ve done, my email address, website, phone number, snail address…even my Twitter. Just by handing it over I can instantly give the other person multiple ways to contact me, without the troublesome business of fiddling with syncing electronic gadgets—or even finding a pen and paper to write a number down.
(And it was cheap, too. I went with an on-line printing service, used a pre-made template, and got a couple hundred cards for about $10 including shipping and the ransom fee for not having their advertising stuck on the back.)
Only one electronic thing could possibly replace, or at least supplant the utility of a business card, and that is a system called ENUM. ENUM would map phone numbers to Internet addresses, so the phone number would serve as a means of contact for telephone, instant messaging, email, and so on. Ars Technica has the details.
But ENUM probably will not end up being implemented, at least in the current business environment. It simply isn’t in the interests of the big telcos to provide a means by which they themselves can be bypassed. It looks like Google Voice is going to be the closest we can currently get to one phone number covering multiple means of contact.
Good thing I have my Google Voice number on my business card.
* Infra-red beaming was supposed to replace using cash for splitting a lunch check, too. It’s easy to forget, but PayPal started out as an IR cash-beaming app for the Palm—before dropping the app after a few months to ditch the overhead of supporting it.