Why I want my Palm business card beaming back

Why I want my Palm business card beaming back

Summary: Modern smartphones still cannot exchange business card information as efficiently as a device released 17 years ago.


As someone who works in sales, I find myself going to a lot of in-person networking events. It's great to be able to get out of the office and meet people, and exchange contact information for follow-ups.

What I've been noticing increasingly, however, is that everyone seems to have gone back to handing out paper business cards, because it's much more convenient to do this than to type out even a quick introductory email to someone using your smartphone or tablet at a gathering.

I personally have not carried printed business cards in over five years. I had them last made out when I joined IBM in 2007, and when I switched jobs within that company and moved to Florida from New Jersey I never had them re-issued.

When I joined Microsoft in December of 2012 I didn't have them made up either. Now that I think about it, I probably should.

But there has to be a better way of exchanging contact information. Business cards get lost, and the information on them has to be either manually entered into the contacts manager app on your device or scanned in somehow, which requires OCR technology and is subject to all the problems that are associated with that.

Emailing contact information is better, but then the contact info ends up in an email thread and not necessarily entered into your address book unless a virtual card file (.vcf) is enclosed. And of course you have to manually click on that .vcf to import it into your contacts manager.

It should come as a surprise to some of you that there was a better way of dealing with this problem, and it was solved 17 years ago, with the introduction of the Palm III PDA. 

The Palm III was the first of a series of hand-held devices made by Palm and its OEM licensees (yes, it had several, Google was not the first to do this with Android) that could "Beam" all of your relevant contact information to another Palm-compatible device as long as it had the required IR-beaming and receiving hardware.

All you had to do was hold down the hardware contacts button, point it at another Palm unit, and within 3 seconds, they had all your information. It was a simple technology, and it worked pretty much flawlessly.

Of course, this primarily only worked on Palms, but back then, Palm had something along the line of 90 percent market share in the PDA market. Windows CE also had PDAs, and there were apps that allowed those devices to receive data and beam to Palms. I don't recall exactly if Psion/Symbian had a similar way of dealing with the cross-OS beaming problem but I'm pretty sure it did. I know even the Apple Newton could do it.

The modern smartphone eschewed the IrDA blaster in favor of "better" technology in the form of Bluetooth, cellular data and Wi-Fi, but we don't have an easy solution for ad-hoc contacts sync.

Yes, there's the new AirDrop in iOS 7, but it doesn't work as easily as one would hope it would, and it's also not cross-platform with Android or Windows Phone. And Android Beam requires NFC, and only works with other Androids with NFC. Wi-Fi Direct, while potentially a good cross-platform solution, has not gotten widespread industry buy-in.

So how could we get that cool feature back, and ensure it works on all devices? Well, I have some ideas.

First, we start with the good 'ol QR code. Every person would claim a registered QR code which would essentially contain the URL to a website or a web service that publishes XML that contains the contact information you wanted to share. This could include not just email and snail mail addresses, titles and companies and phone numbers, but also links to preferred social media accounts and profiles on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Potentially, I see LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft and Apple running their own QR code registries, or even the usual domain registrar subjects. And you should be able to transfer that registered QR home to whoever can host that kind of service at any time.

You should also be able to edit the contents of that published XML at any time, so if you changed jobs, or changed phone numbers, or what have you, that data could be automatically refreshed in everyone's devices provided the PIM software in those devices supported dynamic refresh. However your registered QR code and the feed address would always stay the same, like a email address or a phone number.

Next, we build applications for the mobile devices that allow quick display of that QR code on the device screen, and would also permit the forward-facing camera on each device to capture the QR code on the -other- device, so you have your "handshake" as it were.

Of course, you could always print out these QR codes as fashionable buttons and pin them to your jackets, et cetera. If we actually start using wearable computers, this is the sort of thing most people will want. 

Geeky? Sure. But short of us going back to IrDA or figuring out how to get everyone to adopt Wi-Fi Direct, we need a solution like this.

Were you a Palm "Beamer?" Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Good idea

    Now if someone would just implement it.
  • Oh my GOD!

    Oh, my god, was anything before like that before I-Phone?
  • Android NFC incompatibility

    "And Android Beam requires NFC, and only works with other Androids with NFC."

    Pretty sure that is incorrect. I've used my HTC 8X Windows Phone to share data using NFC with a co-worker's Android phone.
    • black_bart

      Remember Jason abjured everything Android some time ago, add to that he became a Microsoft employee, so do not surprise yourself if you see that kind of statement.
  • Possible solution?

    Hi Jason / All - On a related topic, I advise the cellshare.com team who are currently in private beta, but it's a solution that I think gets close to virtualizing the business card, but still fosters that personal exchange moment, key when making new connections. However the contact info is now in a more useful "digital" format rather than a paper card which gets thrown into a drawer or the trash. Worth checking out.
  • Beam Me?

    Yup. Remember it well.

    And while we're at it, my old Palm TX (8 years old this month and the device Apple ripped off - sorry, 're-imagined' - to create the Touch) was able to add attachments of all sorts to an email from within its Mail application. Just sayin', Apple.
    • Okay, I will bite, how did Apple "rip off"?

      So, by your definition anyone the uses, reuses, what someone else added to a product is ripping off. Well, cars now have starters, intermittent wiper blades, fuel injection. Battery operated tools made by one company are incorporated by another. The list of such things is almost infinite.

      I suppose what you are saying is that when a company creates something, other companies should improve upgrade on it, and add it to their products. Everything we have and own was conceived by one person/company then improved (we hope) upon where now many companies use the same techniques methods and designs; all after the patent runs out.
  • The Palm era was a far more practical era.

    The Palm era was a far more practical era.

    Today, it's more about being buzzword complaint. Are you using cloud/social/BYOD/big data? If not, you're considered a horrible business, regardless of the usefulness of your products.

    So businesses waste all their money on being buzzword compliant rather than actual, useful, practical products.

    Congratulations, ZDNet and other "tech" news publications (which are frankly no longer about technology, but rather about making sure buzzword compliance is never challenged or questioned). You're reaping what you sow.

    I'm hoping that we'll return to a more practical era someday. An era where technology is here to actually help us in practical ways.
    • today

      Today can be more practical, or less, as the user sees fit. My Palm VII and Sony Clie's were practical, but aren't even in the same league of practicality with my Note II. I even got software that allowed me to preserve the list/notes (and I had hundreds of entries) from my Palm system to my android system. Everything the palm could do, the Note does better, and often, vastly better.

      There's really no comparison.

      To business card beaming... I think there's too many steps to hope that a QR registry system would ever match the market share of any single vendor's "custom" solution (nfc android beam for example). If the carriers did it as part of their branding software, it might work, but they have little motivation to make it work between carriers. MS & Apple are too proud to follow, so don't expect them to implement android beam; and they'd likely patent any system they build for their own mobile OS' and ask for a licensing fee.

      That said, there is enough horsepower in modern smartphones to do a decent OCR on an imaged business card, and it'd be easy enough to have a card "display" that would be like a business card if you didn't want to carry card stock. That could be OS independent. I doubt it would ever catch on to do a face to face info swap; one-way might work out...
  • You can thank your beloved Apple for this.

    Bluetooth includes a set of protocols called "OBEX" (Object Exchange) which was originally implemented in IrDA - infrared beaming.

    Apple decided to remove this from the iPhone platform, and since they were the one everyone was copying - OBEX pretty much died.

    The good news - if you're an Android user - is that it's still kind of there.

    You: Go to People.
    You: Pick your contact.
    You: Tap "..." then Share
    You: Choose Bluetooth
    They: Turn Bluetooth on (if off) - either way go to Bluetooth
    They: Tap their device icon to make their Bluetooth visible to everyone
    You: Tap 'scan'
    You: Select their device.
    They: Accept the file
    They: Pull down notifications and click on the file received notification
    They: Choose "People" when it asks to select the app to handle the vcf

    Done. Yes, ugly - but it works. Thank Apple.
  • Does anyone use an app called Bump?

    Sharing business cards between phones should be easy enough - though I've only used Bump in an Android-to-Android connection.
    Joann Prinzivalli
    • Exchanging cards and building a network

      Like Bump FlashBind lets you exchange cards between any two phones (iPhone or Android) and it also builds your own trusted provider network by building a pool of service providers used by your family, friends and extended social network. It also lets business owners / service providers highlight their business among social circle of their customers and post special offer / deals. Thus people can get special offers by providers in their trusted network!
  • Beam me up Scotty!

    I agree. I generally use the email/vcf route, but the old Palm beam was easier and more reliable.
  • I own two of those Palm IIXEs.

    I still get lots of use out of them. They have a REAL UI. Drop down menus, clickable precision buttons with a stylus, and a good compiled language based OS. A Palm was meant for serious work, it had a REAL purpose. Smartphones just seem to turn everyone into petentious, dimwitted zombies. The phone gets it's smarts by making you dumb.
  • Palm had a lot of things going for it....

    There was a very rich universe of apps, written by some very creative people, which are to this day unequaled. For instance many of the book readers were far better in their basic functionality than anything from BN or Amazon. Also the math apps (I'm an engineer and live on them some days) were extremely sophisticated. Sadly the only way to get these apps is if you still have a PalmOS device (I do) which still works (mine does) and already has the apps loaded since the sites distributing them are gone.
  • Red Laser

    Ever heard of it? It allows you to share a contact using a QR code.
  • I was a beamer

    Yes I was a beamer. had a series of Palm PDAs and then the Treo 680. And the Treo was easier to use and "better" than all the BB and Samsung phones I've had since. "Better" because you could do everything you can with the new machines, there were many apps that worked. etc.
    I still miss my Treo.