Part One: "Here's My Card"

This past week, I had the opportunity to put e-business cards to a real-world test thanks to a recent trip to the DEMO 09 conference in Palm Desert, California. You would think that if any group of people would have adopted the electronic business card model for exchanging their contact data, it would be the technology community. Yet at conferences like DEMO and all the others, printed paper cards are still exchanged. Why is that?

Getting Started

The first step to going paperless is easy: don't pack your business cards when heading out to an event. Old habits die hard and if you have even a handful of cards in your possession, I guarantee you that you'll use them at some point. Exchanging paper cards is much faster than tapping away at a mobile phone, so there will be several times where you'll be tempted to just break out the paper product if it's at hand. Better to go "cold turkey" and not give yourself any other options.

SnapDat: An iPhone App for e-Business Cards

Next, you'll need to choose a mobile application for exchanging cards. As an iPhone owner, I went straight to the iTunes Store to find my app. Other smartphone owners may not have as large a selection since the other app stores - like those for Android, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile - are just getting started.

In iTunes, you'll encounter a number of e-business card applications, so picking one can be difficult. To find the one right for you, you'll need to pay close attention to the details. On the surface, many of these apps may sound like they would do, but in real-world scenarios, you'll quickly encounter their limitations.

For example, apps like myCard, FriendBook, and Nameo (iTunes URLs) let you exchange contact information over the air with other iPhone users. This feature is called a "handshake." While this is indeed a nifty trick, in the real world you're still going to encounter enough non-iPhone users to make these types of apps a non-starter.

Another application called DropCard lets you text their service with an email address. It will then send your contact info via email to the recipient. I skipped this option as well because I don't have a mobile plan with unlimited text messages and didn't want to go over my limit.

Instead, while at DEMO, I put an iPhone application called SnapDat to the test. The application was "serviceable," but was still not the ideal solution.

Using SnapDat

What drew me to this app initially was the price tag: free. Whenever possible, I try to find a decent free application before forking out cash for a Pro version.

SnapDat also met my number one requirement which was that it provided a way for me to send cards to others who didn't use the service. Although another application called beamMe is more popular, what intrigued me about SnapDat was that it allows me to create multiple business cards. BeamMe's free application did not permit this. While I could have just entered all my contact info into beamMe, I prefer to keep my identities separate - no need to confuse the recipients.

With SnapDat, the process of setting up your business card is straightforward and it can all be done on the phone. You just enter your contact information, upload a picture (if desired), and pick a theme. That last step, however, was the most disappointing. The themes offered were far from modern, most looking like bad clip art circa Microsoft Office 2003. I found one of the least offensive options (there was no way to create a custom theme) and then proceeded to test the service.

Unfortunately, SnapDat is yet another application which is far too concerned with gathering more users than it is with providing you with a useful tool. Upon launching the app, you're first presented with the option to enter in a user's SnapDat ID. No one I encountered had a SnapDat ID, so from the get-go, I'm having to press a button to bypass this option. It's additional time-wasters like this that make the process of using SnapDat slower than it needs to be.

On the next screen, you can enter in an email address and hit "send." The recipient gets an email with your contact info both in the body of the email and as a vCard attachment which they can then add to their email address book or phone. The sending process was easy but upon completion, SnapDat pops up a message reminding you to inform your new business contact to check their junk mail if they didn't get the email. That's a useful tip for the first time you send a card, but it appears every time you use SnapDat which is more than an annoyance - it's an inconvenience - especially since there's no option to shut the reminder off.

The service also comes with a "SnapDirectory" where you can store the SnapCards others send you, but - let's be honest - this is not a feature you'll use much...if at all. The primary reason for using an e-card app is to send a vCard to someone's email where it can then be stored in their contacts database, not in some niche iPhone application.

OK, But Not Perfect

In the end, SnapDat was, like I said, "serviceable," but the terrible themes and bothersome pop-ups took away from what could have been a much more useful application. However, for anyone who wants to create more than one business card, it's worth a look.

SnapDat is available from the iTunes store here.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I'll tell you what to do with that stack of paper cards you've collected.

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Update: Just got word that SnapDat is coming out with a new version this week and is currently awaiting App Store approval. In this version, they allow you to upload your own logo on 5 classic professional layouts. They've also improved the email vCard process in 3 ways:

1) They've now embedded an image of your SnapCard, along with the vCard.

2) They've added a "lookup" button in the event you want to send your vCard to an existing contact.

3) They've improved the look and format of the email overall.

They're also considering removing the pop-up based on this article's suggestion.