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.


Crystal Ball: Tablet Computers Are Part Of The Future, Just Not All Of Them

As we hear more and more about Apple selling 2 million iPads during first 60 days more and more companies are placing their bets on tablet computers. So far we’ve heard about HP Slate (canceled though) and a lot of other devices. Most of them should have been running some flavor of Windows. Some are heard to be running Android. With the demise of Palm and HP’s taking over there’s hope that WebOS will pop its head some time later.

Here’s the deal. Tablet computer isn’t a real personal computer – the way we understand the meaning of the word. Even though it may feel like one. We don’t perceive our cars’ computerized inner workings as personal computer – although it sports same kind of CPU-chipset-memory-output paradigm as any other computer does. We don’t think of doing any real work on XBox gaming console, even though it has been demonstrated to be able to do such things with ease on older models and – with some extra effort – on current ones.

In similar fashion the tablet computers are more narrow-tasked devices. They won’t replace your main computer if you are doing any kind of serious work. You can, of course, go to some lengths to push through some productivity, but slate devices aren’t quite fit for it by design. This is similar to how some people write software on their iPhones or Andriod devices (and I knew quite a lot of people who were writing some Java code on their Palm devices 10 -12 years ago). While I respect the effort, I believe there are more comfortable ways to code.

From the way the device is used stems the general idea of what operating system should be running on the device. It may seem to make logical sense to try and stuff fully featured Windows onto a slate to take advantage of already created applications. However, I cannot imagine anyone using Adobe Photoshop or AutoCAD on a tablet. Nor can I imagine someone typing up a huge report in MS Word, using Excel charts or creating PowerPoint presentations. You should be able to view them, no doubt about it, but imagine working with a 500MB Excel file that’s ridden with formulas and macros on a significantly underpowered CPU and screen that is smaller than one you had 10 years ago. It may be possible, of course, but why suffer? I’ve seen people creating a simple PowerPoint presentation on a netbook with a 10″ screen, working with more or less simple Excel tables and there was much pain and suffering. Now remove the physical keyboard…

In addition to that – think about the battery life. All those full-featured application are optimized (if at all) to run as fast as possible, utilizing the most of CPU and memory made available, effectively draining as much power as they want. This isn’t an issue on a power-connected machine, but on a device that is mostly battery-powered it is hardly an advantage. That’s why most of tablets running Windows are only capable of doing 2 – 3 hours on a battery. Compare that with 10 hours of iPad and you will understand the difference.

Since this post is named “Crystal Ball”, I’d go ahead and make a prediction for the next 5 years. Tablet devices running some sort of mobile operating system (Android, WebOS, OSX, maybe even some flavor of stripped-down Windows) will gradually replace any other portable computing devices – e-book readers, netbooks and some of the smaller laptops. The smallest size of the laptop to survive would be something along the lines of MacBook Air. Anything smaller is a torture to use for any serious work, so tablets will be used instead for reading, web/e-mail and some light work – document reviews, notes, memos, as well as entertainment – movies, games, music. They will complement smartphones rather than replacing them. With proliferation of cloud-storage and applications that are capable of taking advantage of that storage, tablet computers will become mainstream, ubiquitous consumer devices – much like walkmans were back in nineties.


Mobile In The Cloud Is Too Hot To Handle For Small Biz

Mobile To Cloud - Too Hot To Handle For A Biz The topic of mobile computing in the cloud seems to occupy every tech blogger’s mind on the planet. The idea of storing all your data on the cloud (in the clouds?) is so fascinating that anyone who dares to say otherwise is considered almost a Luddite. Well, let me play a little bit of devil’s advocate here.

When we are talking about mobile in the cloud we essentially talking about two different things. One – being on the go and storing your data on some network storage so that such data is accessible from any computer. As long as you are able to log in to that storage – you’re good to go.

Second thing – is having all of the above at our fingertips on our smartphone or mobile internet device (iPhone, iTouch and so on). For some reason, still mostly invisible to me, most tech bloggers have decided that by the end of 2010 it will be hot to have all your data in the cloud and accessible from your smart phone.

I did a little experiment recently. I purchased plenty of space on Google’s Picasa and uploaded every single photo I have since I bought my first digital camera. That includes raw images and edited images, so there was approximately 30% overhead. Still, the overall volume hit 110 Gigabyte. Nothing much in terms of current disk space. It took me a week to realize that I don’t want to wait any longer for all these pictures to be uploaded, so I canceled the process. Of course, if I had a dedicated channel it would not have taken so long, but I don’t. My nightly backups have to run. I have work to do. VPN connections eat up a lot as well. So my personal photo collection failed to upload completely.

What about small business use? Will small business owner upload all his documents, data (whatever that may be) or images if it will take away his time? I don’t think so. A few Word documents are fine, but once you start talking hundreds of megabytes, anywhere outside of the corporate networks that might be a problem. Just recently as we have finalized one of the projects, we needed to upload about 100 Megs of files – already compressed – to the client’s representative. It took other party in South Carolina full 15 minutes from receiving a download link to getting a complete download. Sure, storing on the cloud sounds like fun, but until whatever you have stored is half an hour away from you – it’s not a working solution, it’s a storage room out of town.

Next stop – mobile phone use. I know people who live and breath their Blackberry, but I also know people who don’t. And I know more people who don’t want to exhaust their eyes reading things on Blackberry screen than those that would. iPhone is a great entertainment device, but I can’t – for the life of me – type anything long there. Same is with BlackJack, Tilt or Droid. I just don’t see a particular reason to do it, if I can always get back to my X61s which at least has a decent size keyboard. Another issue with doing some kinds of work on a smart phone is the limited screen real estate. I am yet to see one client who can grasp an idea of a regular web site mock up, a desktop software GUI draft or even an income statement from the cell phone screen. Of course, a CPA with 20 years of experience under his belt might pull this off with income statement, but not a regular small business owner.

Overall, having your data available both on the cloud and off is a great idea. However, until we will be able to use a real high-speed connection to that data, nothing major is going to happen. Storage rooms are a great business, but having storage room doesn’t mean your car gets to move faster.