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Business cards: Stubborn holdouts in the digital revolution

Despite changing times, the business card has hung around. (Bill O’Leary/2006 Washington Post photo)
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A few weeks ago I went to a conference in Silicon Valley to discuss drones. Everyone in attendance was tech savvy, and curious about one of the hottest areas of technology. But despite sitting on the cutting edge, everyone was reliant on a 15th-century technology — the business card.

They remain the de facto way to easily swap contact information with people you meet.

Sure, business cards have added bells and whistles since originating about half a millennium ago in China. There’s raised lettering, watermarks, QR codes and Twitter handles. But the basic concept remains the same. Your name and contact information is on a small card that you hand to people.

The question is, will the business card’s reign ever crumble?

We’ve seen physical media such as newspapers, magazines, books challenged, yet the business card has held off all threats.

Start-ups such as Bump, Hashable and CardFlick have all tried and failed to replace the business card. Our smartphones are more powerful than the computers first used to land on the moon, but they have yet to dethrone the simple business card.

While on vacation this summer I found myself constantly checking my altitude as I drove through mountains in the Pacific Northwest. When traffic got bad, I could look at Google Maps for real-time updates on finding a faster route. Replacing the business card would seem easier, but it hasn’t proved to be.

Business cards have the advantage of being universal. You don’t need to install an app or have a given type of phone to connect with someone. Just stick out your hand, and take their card. It’s easy and friction-less.

Lately I’ve been testing an app, Knock Knock, that wants to simplify how we share our information and stay connected.

The premise is simple, knock twice on your phone’s screen, and you can quickly share your contact information and social media accounts with those nearby, provided they’ve also installed the app, knocked on their phone and agreed to connect with you.

Right now the app’s makers are focused on college campuses. They’re rolling it out Wednesday at Harvard, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, California-Berkeley and USC.

“The idea of taking the complexity out of social interaction is really exciting,” said Ankur Jain, chief executive of Humin, which is launching Knock Knock. “If I can meet you and instantly stay connected, remember where we met, when we met and be able to communicate with you on any platform just by knocking twice on my phone, that’s magic.”

As a social networking app, no matter how good the app is, it doesn’t matter if no one downloads it. Facebook, for example, becomes more and more useful and entrenched as more people use the service. College campuses are an ideal petri dish for launching networking apps. Facebook memorably launched at Harvard.

“It’s a hyper-condensed environment where you’re meeting new people, trying to remember their names, trying to stay connected,” Jain said. “College is where you build a social graph that affects your career and your personal life.”

Before Knock Knock, Jain’s team launched Humin, a contacts app that struggled to take off. Without a critical mass of users, its utility was limited. Knock Knock is a simplified version.

Jain thinks Knock Knock could replace business cards, but sees it as useful in a broader range of social situations. Maybe someone in a coffee shop uses Knock Knock to connect with a potential love interest. A group of freshman in a college dorm could all share their Instagram and Snapchat handles. Or a businessperson could use Knock Knock to connect with an attendee on the other side of the room.

Jain wants to tap into the success of Tinder and Snapchat, apps that require little commitment and work from a user. Knock Knock is extremely simple. I installed it and had my account up and running in about a minute. If everyone I met had Knock Knock, I could see it being extremely useful. But it will have to spread first, and be nearly universal.

Jain’s college strategy might work, and maybe Knock Knock or an app like it replaces the almighty business card. Or maybe business cards will never go away.