cellular technology

The Case For Business Cards: Android Apps For Business Cards

aaaBeing in a technology field for so long I don’t really like business cards. So much so that I refused to have one for a very long time. However, once you start talking to more people than those 6 cubicles of separation – you might need some of those so that people will remember you when they throw them out of their wallets.

Friday I have returned from a summit hosted by one of the largest ERP vendors. I’ve met a lot of people. I’ve sat through a lot of demos. My wallet got fat from all the business cards I was handed (and I ran out of mine in under 30 seconds). My first impulse was to throw this thick stack of dead tree remains into garbage, but I have realized I might need to get in touch with some of these people. However, there is no way I will have enough time to input contacts from all these cards into my phone manually. So I ventured on a quest for mobile app that will allow me to scan these cards into my contacts. My needs are simple – it has to be free app so I could try it before purchasing “Pro Elite SpetsNaz Ninja” version, it has to scan the card, convert it into contact information and store it in my address book. I don’t need any kind of cloud sync since my contacts are already syncing perfectly fine thanks to Google accounts. In fact – I don’t need to store MY contacts anywhere else aside from my own address book. On top of that – I don’t think I even need to store an image of the card. Once I got all the juice out of it the image can be discarded. It doesn’t get any simpler than that, right?

I had a chance to run through six apps for Android since I am using HTC Thunderbolt. I deliberately skipped paid only apps because I don’t feel like paying for something I can’t try and I don’t want to bother with requesting refunds, disputing charges and so on. If you don’t have a way for me to try your app – it doesn’t exist (unless I already know what it does and how it does it from another source). Disclaimer – none of the developers had anything to do with me reviewing their apps. I did this on my own time and when I saw my own need for the app like this.

In order to create this ad-hoc review I have selected 5 business cards (2 of them are mine, three were handed over to me at the summit). In most cases I discarded the worst result and compared the performance on the rest. I considered the card scanned properly if it picked up person’s name, phone and e-mail (these are must), company name and company URL are nice to haves, everything else is optional. Two of the cards are aligned vertically and in addition to company logo contain text only. Other cards were: text only, average boring corporate business card where company name is a fancily obfuscated Times New Roman text and a business card with plenty of text that looks like cheap flyer (my old business card, in case you wonder). All testing was done in a regularly lit office space. Here’s the outcome, sorted by performance.

GK Business Card Reader LiteGK Business Card Reader Lite. Score: 0 out of 4
This is the most impressive failure of the app. Not only it failed to properly extract information from any card I fed it, the information extracted was a pile of garbage – nothing that was even remotely recoverable. However, it was really fast at failing and had only the permissions necessary for an app like this – read/write contact data, modify/delete storage contents. I’m sure it might have worked better for someone else, otherwise it’s hard to explain those 25 positive reviews. The full version of the app costs $1.99 and has only 2 reviews. I guess that tells enough to make a decision.

Presto!BizCard FreePresto!BizCard Free. Score: 1 out of 4
This app simply does not stand out. Average speed, some issues with scanning simple cards and font confusion – it scanned more complex card, but failed at simple card that used Terminal font. Allows image import, which is convenient if you have a pile of cards and don’t feel like scanning them one by one – might as well snap a picture of a card on the go and scan when you get around to it. This app also has proper permissions (read/write contact data, modify/delete storage contents). In addition to poor performance the app sports somewhat confusing interface – all visible buttons for calling/emailing/texting to the contact instead of actually managing the contact. The full $3.99 version of this app has only one review with the score of 1 in app store. Not good.

CamCard Lite - Business Card RCamCard Lite – Business Card R. Score: 1.5 out of 4
Yep, that’s the name for the app. I guess other 5 names were taken already. It scanned and recognized information here and there, but failed to provide consistent results. Simply ignored all my attempts at scanning vertically aligned cards by cropping the top part of it and refusing to change its behavior. There is also an issue with app’s permissions – it wants to read from the system’s various log files. Why would it need to do that is beyond me. Not a keeper, even though it is priced at $4.99 for full version.

ScanBizCards LiteScanBizCards Lite. Score: 2 out of 4
I really want to like this app. Even though it’s a slow, two step process – take a picture, wait, review the image, scan, wait a little more, review the information, save it. Even though it made out only two out of 4 cards. The reason for me wanting to like it is its interactive, user friendly way to get the card scanned properly. The app gets out of its way to really please and asks a bunch of questions about whether it got the information right, is the image positioned properly and whether or not the company name is really that weird word with “, Inc.” at the end. Permission-wise it’s the same as most other contenders: directly call phone numbers, send SMS messages. Why every app wants me to use it to make phone calls I have no idea. But I appreciate the fact that developers of this app have realized the imperfection of their OCR system and provided an interactive and user-friendly way to assist the user in fixing recognition errors. I am keeping it for more testing. There is a limit on a Lite version: “This version only saves two cards per week to the address book”, but for what effectively is a useless trial version of the $6.99 app it’s fine.

ScanCard Free Trial VersionScanCard Free Trial Version. Score: 3 out of 4
This app doesn’t quite stand out, except for weird permission to let the app change the Wi-Fi state. What does business card scanning app have to do with Wi-Fi? Moderate speed, but less than decent interface – fields are represented by tiny blurry icons. Given that app recognizes different text as different fields it’s hard to guess, initially, what each icon means. During my first run I got 2 out of 5 cards recognized, but after fiddling with settings I figured that the default language is set to Chinese. When I switched to English I got a better score of 3 out of 4, however it still failed at some fairly simple lines on a couple of cards. The full version of the app costs $5.99 and comes with support on Beijing time.

Card reader - YCardCard reader – YCard. Score: 4 out of 4
Before you even able to use this app there are two things that hit you right in your face. First is a set of permissions this app requires: coarse (network-based) location and fine (GPS) location, directly call phone numbers and change Wi-Fi state. I can imagine it yet another app that wants me to make phone calls directly from it, but what the heck does it need my GPS location for? Second – it requires a registration to use it. Not just some “come up with a stupid user name” registration – it actually asks you for an e-mail, sends you a confirmation link and only when you click it – you are allowed to use this free app. On top of that all the images of business cards you take are uploaded to “the cloud” for processing, so no actual OCR takes place on your phone. Which is, probably, why it has the highest score out of all other apps – it correctly recognized information on all cards I fed into it. It took it’s sweet time averaging just under 5 minutes for each card and, of course, requiring a constant internet connection for exchange. While it does work flawlessly, the fact that it requires so much information to run makes me uneasy, so I don’t feel like keeping a foreign watchdog on my phone.

If you don’t care about privacy or other fancy stuff on your phone than the last app is definitely a winner. Otherwise – I am having a hard time choosing which app I would want to use on a daily basis. As always – take the reviews in app store with a grain of salt and use common sense when picking an app for your use.

laptop technology

MacBook Pro vs. Lenovo T-series Feature and Cost Comparison

Lenovo Thinkpad T-series vs. MacBook Pro 2011 comparison - Don't fall for enemy propaganda posterIt has come to my attention that more and more people are falling for enemy propaganda and start thinking about purchasing a Mac rather than state department approved Windows PC. Don’t fall for enemy propaganda, report uses of Macs to the closes TSA branch or directly to the State Truth Department.

Sorry, it’s a long weekend and this article promises to be rather long, so a bit of humor should lighten the load. Here’s for your consideration, a feature and cost comparison between MacBook Pro 2011 (Sandy Bridge) and Lenovo ThinkPad T-Series. It’s understandable why I picked MBP for comparison. MacBook Pro is a popular machine and it gets even more so – even malware producers have decided to turn their attention to Apple’s platform. But why Lenovo? Well, I’ve been a consistent user of IBM/Lenovo laptops for 5 years now and I know this line very well. Not only that – ThinkPad line of laptops is, by far, the only line that is associated with names IBM and Lenovo.

Another consideration for comparing T-series, rather than anything else, is that it’s the most expensive (aside from W, which currently only offers one W520 model) line, so it should stack up closely with Apple’s premium pricing.

One more reason is that laptop manufacturers don’t make it easy to figure out what line of laptops is supposed to be doing what. I understand it’s a long-term marketing strategy, where manufacturers rely on buzzwords and gimmicks to sell subpar hardware for the same money you could have bought a newer and better machine. HP does it more or less right. Dell is just… well, being Dell:
Lenovo Thinkpad T-series vs. MacBook Pro 2011 comparison - Dell website
Acer is trying to beat Dell in terms of telling customers “Nothing to see here, move along”:
Lenovo Thinkpad T-series vs. MacBook Pro 2011 comparison - Acer website

Lenovo, coming from serving corporate folk, is trying to bore everyone to death:
Lenovo Thinkpad T-series vs. MacBook Pro 2011 comparison - Lenovo website
Click on the picture to enlarge and try to figure out what Lenovo laptops target what market and how are they different. Now, imagine how much work their marketing department has to do to keep all that somewhere in their crazy minds. Borderline insane.

Now, having said all that – Apple got three tiers of MacBook Pros: 13 inch, 15 inch and 17 inch screens, with two choices of CPU for 13 and 15 inch models and single choice for 17 inch. What I will try to do is match Lenovo Thinkpad specs as close to those of MBP as possible and see what kind of machine we end up with. The issue here is that Lenovo Thinkpads come in as many as 7 (SEVEN!) different flavors. It’s kind of hard to pick and choose which one to compare, so I have opted to compare T series against 13 and 15 inch MBP models. It came as a surprise to me to find that Lenovo has discontinued a 17 inch model offering – especially that I own a Thinkpad W701, which is a 17 inch laptop. Therefore I will use Lenovo Essential G770 model, even though it is not a configurable model – i.e. all hardware specs are set when you pick a model, you can’t customize anything, but warranty and accessories.

Therefore the matching will be done as follows:
13 inch MacBook Pro vs. Lenovo Thinkpad T420/T420i
15 inch MacBook Pro vs. Lenovo Thinkpad T520
17 inch MacBook Pro vs. Lenovo Essentials G770

Since Thinkpads don’t come by default with Bluetooth and built-in camera, all Lenovo’s were configured with these additional options. The closest CPU, video resolution and hard drive capacity were picked where exact match wasn’t possible. Additionally, all Thinkpads come with Windows Home Premium 64 bit. A default 6-cell battery was chosen for all models as well as all other options were left at their default values since we are comparing “out of the box” configurations.

Here’s the resulting comparison table:
Lenovo Thinkpad T-series vs. MacBook Pro 2011 comparison - Comparison Table

As you can see in 13 inch category I had to choose lower T420i over T420 to match it against lowest MBP model – simply because Lenovo does not offer Core i5-2410M in regular T420 models. In both cases Lenovo’s offering slightly better in terms of screen size, resolution, hard drive speed (Lenovo’s 7200RPM is noticeably faster than Apple’s 5400RPM offering), number of available USB ports and price. Speaking of price difference – $270 on lowest models and $240 on a step-up – makes it a big difference, at least in my book. Getting laptop with better specs for around $250 less should be a strong point against picking up Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 inch models.

In 15 inch category things did not quite match up either. For some reason Lenovo does not offer 750GB hard drive for T520, however, they still have 7200RPM disks against 5400RPM from Apple, which inherently makes their default system faster. Lenovo is a little less flexible in terms of graphics offering NVIDIA NVS 4200M Graphics with Optimus Technology with 1GB of memory as the only option on T520 Thinkpads. If you are buying T520 mostly for office-related tasks this is obviously an overkill. Lenovo, however, offers 1900×1200 resolution screens on its 15 inch laptops, something that Apple’s MacBook Pros definitely lacking. On the lower end the 2 CPUs are a bit different (Core i7-2635QM vs Core i7-2630QM, you can see side-by-side comparison on Intel’s web site), but for real world use it shouldn’t matter much. Price gap, however – $460 on lower model and $775 on step-up – makes a world of difference. Having over $700 in cost advantage can allow you to configure Lenovo system that will beat MacBook Pro in every category. As a matter of fact – $2,034 will buy you a T520 with Core i7-2820QM Processor (2.30GHz, 8MB L3), 8GB RAM, 15.6″ FHD (1920 x 1080) LED Backlit Anti-Glare Display and 500GB 7200RPM hard drive. Should you opt out of upgrading memory while ordering and get your 8GB somewhere else, you could still end up with cash to spare for an additional 750GB 7200RPM hard drive plus Ultrabay dock. Again, Lenovo’s offering in 15-inch category beats Apple by even wider margin.

Lenovo has discontinued their 17-inch W7xx series, therefore a direct comparison with premium series is not possible. As of right now, Lenovo only offers one model (Essentials G770) in 17 inch segment. I hope it’s a sign of better things to come (IPS screens maybe?). However, since Lenovo doesn’t have a premium machine to match against 17 inch MacBook Pro I used whatever is available at the moment. You can see that G770 offers the same low-end i5-2410M CPU as do 13 inch models, it sports sub-par 1600×900 pixel screen, AMD Radeon HD 6650M 1GB video and slow 750GB 5400RPM hard drive. Obviously, in terms of performance it’s no match for 17 inch MacBook Pro. However, if you look at the price and unless it turns out that Lenovo components are dead soldered to motherboard – you still have an option to upgrade – i5-2410M supports FCBGA1023 and PPGA988 sockets, so there could be other options available, depending on motherboard design. Nevertheless, I still believe Apple summarily wins 17 inch category because opponent failed to show up. If I could speculate a bit, I would imagine Lenovo’s W720 machine to sport a configuration of Core i7-2820QM Processor (2.30GHz, 8MB L3), 8GB RAM (expandable to 16GB), NVIDIA Quadro 1000M Graphics with 2GB DDR3 Memory, 17.1 FHD (1920 x 1080) and 750GB of 7200RPM storage (with RAID options – my current W701 has 2 HDD bays and supports RAID). I would imagine the cost to be in the vicinity of $2,500 and this would be on the level with 17 inch MacBook Pro. This configuration would be better in terms of specifications, but hardly different in terms of price, so the only major selling point for Lenovo would be expandability and graphics card. This, essentially, could have been a tie, but such Lenovo system does not exist.

To summarize it all up – if you are shopping for 13 to 15 inch laptop, then Apple’s MacBook Pro laptops are consistently more expensive and provide a lot less computing power for the same amount of money when compared to premium line of Lenovo’s Thinkpad T-series laptops. If you opt for cheaper lines of Lenovo Thinkpad laptops (S, SL or Edge) or other lines (IdeaPad, Essentials) – your savings could be even bigger. In other words – Apple’s 15-inch laptops are the biggest rip-off, comparing to Lenovo’s premium laptops. In 17 inch category Lenovo does not offer anything of a value, therefore 17 inch Apple MacBook Pro has no competition here.

business technology

Work Computer Is Not Dead

There is an interesting read on O’Reilly Radar today, called “Why the cloud may finally end the reign of the work computer”. The author, Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D., brings up an interesting topic – what if workers were allowed to bring their own computers to work. This will bring costs of support up. But since the advent of the cloud it won’t matter: “With the application, data, business logic, and security all provisioned in the cloud, the computer really does simply become a portal to information and utility.

As far as I know (and I have only worked in IT for 15 years) there are two major factors that push companies to provide their own computers to workers: data security and maintenance costs. Somehow it is widely believed that if you scare your users into believing that all those viruses are out there hunting for you only because you are not “doing work” and if you stick to software on the company-issued hardware then you are magically safe. No virus will touch you because you are “doing work”. The company data is safe because we all “doing work”.

Let’s talk about data security first.

Scene 1.
When I work as a consultant at the company bringing my own laptop is either highly encouraged or required. If I am an employee at the same company, bringing my own laptop may result in what they call a “disciplinary action”. Oh, the irony.

Can you steal sensitive company data? Yes, especially if you are a contractor and therefore have less ties with a company. Just copy whatever the hell you want on your very own contractor laptop and do whatever.

Scene 2.
HIPAA-compliant institution, no one (including consultants) is allowed to use anything, but bulk, ugly and oh-so-last-century laptops provided by IT department. Each laptop has a (disabled) hardware encryption chip and a hard drive encrypted by some software. Yep, that’s how clueless the IT department is, but that’s not the point. Every single useful web site is blocked by the firewall – web mail, hosting providers, you name it. What do you think the chance of BYOC there? Zero or less.

Can you steal sensitive company data? Still yes – just take your laptop home a few times and don’t connect to company’s VPN when you hook it up. Even if CD burning or USB writing is disabled – you can still e-mail pretty much anything on your laptop to your own self.

As you can see there is little of what you can do from an IT prospective that would ensure the safety of the data. There is nothing technically sophisticated in each scene. The safety of the data relies not on technology, but on people employing it. Once C-level executives figure that out (in only hundred years or so) – no one would care what is it that you are using to get your job done.

Now, part two, maintenance cost. That’s a real one, boys and girls. It is indeed true that company buys hardware at a special discount, so if you see that brand new Dell for $600 your company may be buying the same exact model for anywhere between $300 and $500 – depending on company size, aggressiveness of Dell’s sales person and myriad of other factors. It is also a big deal to support all this hardware and it’s no joke – with all the in-house applications it becomes a nightmare to test that brand new billing system developed in shiny .NET 4.0 on your Accounting 5-year old clunkers.

Here comes the cloud, as the author of the original material says, and everything is magically working again. I say – it worked a long time ago without any cloud – just recall magic words “remote desktop”, “citrix” or even ancient “application server”. Yep, I remember environment with 50 users running the same DOS program on the server via some sort of remote terminal connection – each got their own instance, of course. Today, with virtualization, it so damn easy to have a truly unified workstation across any number of workers – it’s not even worth discussing. Just do it, back it up each night and fuhgeddaboudit.

See, ma, no hands. I mean – no clouds. Bright and sunny. And, what’s the most important part of it – no data leaves the company, even if you DO take your laptop home. Some added benefit of security, right?