COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Entering and recalling information

One of the benefits of computers is automation of tedious and repetitive activities. For more than a decade, there have been products to scan information from business cards and automatically enter the data into the computer, avoiding tedious typing.

The technical challenge is to read what's on the card and figure out which text is the name, e-mail address, phone and fax, using a series of rules in the software. This is complicated, with the wide variations of business cards, including styles, designs, layouts, fonts, background, paper, text orientation, logos, superimposed images, etc. There will always be cards that can fool the software; graphic artists will always be more creative than any software program. So don't expect any product to work perfectly with every card. The question is whether it is good enough.

I've been testing the CardScan Executive (600/6V), the latest product from Corex Technologies (www.corex.com) of Cambridge, Mass., with a suggested retail price of $249. The current version has new software features and scans in color. The scanner is about the size of a wallet and connects to the USB port. It reads business cards one at a time and then enters the information into its own address book and into any of the popular contact managers such as Microsoft's Outlook, ACT, Lotus Notes or PDAs running Palm or Microsoft's mobile software.

I evaluated the product using Outlook 2002 and the soon-to-be-released Outlook 2003. I fed a stack of cards into the scanner, one at a time, then clicked an onscreen button to process them in bulk, which takes anywhere from three to 10 seconds each. I then checked the results and with another click synced with Outlook. Cards are identified as to whether or not they have been verified, so I could choose to check them later. I also chose the option of adding a color image of each business card into the Outlook record. When I installed Outlook 2003 I needed to reinstall the CardScan software because the location Outlook uses for the contact data changes between Outlook versions.

While CardScan is easy to use, it doesn't read every card perfectly. I tried almost 100 cards of various designs, including the larger International cards from Europe, Taiwan and Japan. It read about 80 percent of the cards with little or no errors. Of the other 20 percent, the errors were usually minor enough -- garbled information on a couple of lines -- that I was able to correct in less time than it would have taken to type them in from scratch. I needed to enter most of the information by hand for just a few cards, those that typically had heavily inclined text or very complex backgrounds that overwhelmed the text.

The program makes it easy to make corrections by displaying the card image adjacent to the interpreted text to compare. One improvement would be to highlight the text that the software struggled to recognize for quicker corrections. I also found its visual interface, made to look like a Rolodex card file with a fixed window size, somewhat dated; I'd prefer a more modern, Outlook-like interface with a variable size window.

After using CardScan for almost a month, I have found I enter nearly all the cards I receive immediately, rather than allowing them to pile up and deciding which ones I want to type in. It's become my preferred way for entering business card information.

IRIS

For comparison purposes I also tried the IRIS Business Card Scanner (www.irislink.com) with a street price of $139-$169, another business scanner widely distributed. Its attractive price, almost half of the CardScan, makes it tempting. It was easy to set up and to use. However, running the same 100 cards, it had about three times the error rate of the CardScan. There were some cards that had no problem on the CardScan that could not be read at all on the IRIS. I found its higher error rate made the IRIS less useful.

The CardScan is the product to get if you frequently need to enter contact information and want a quick way to get the information into your computer or a PDA. If you already have a large collection of business cards, this is the most practical and fun way to input the information. Yes, this is definitely good enough!

ActiveWords

ActiveWords (www.activewords.com) is a terrific product that increases productivity when using the computer. It is extremely powerful yet simple software that sits in the background and continuously monitors your keystrokes. When it senses the typing of either words or acronyms that the user designates, followed by a trigger (such as the F8 key), it comes to life and executes an action. The actions can be those that are built in or others that are defined by the user.

With a few keystrokes it can launch applications, open spreadsheets and Word documents, retrieve information, navigate to Web sites or substitute a series of words. For example, at the end of my e-mail, I select the closing information, depending on whether it is personal or business mail. Typing "per" + F8, I add my home address and phone numbers; typing "bus" + F8 I add my business information. Any amount of text that is used on a repetitive basis, even a form, a standard disclaimer, or contract can be recalled with a few keystrokes. To open an application like Excel I type "xl" + F8. I can go to any Web site by typing an abbreviation like "ya" +F8 to open Yahoo.

ActiveWords comes with capabilities already built in that make it immediately useful. Its Outlook agent allows me to type any first name, last name or company name in any application at any time, follow that name with F8, and have that record open in less than a second. Now when I want call my friend "Bob Smith" and need to find his cell number, I simply type his name + F8, and his record opens.

Even though ActiveWords is always monitoring keystrokes, it remains completely invisible and has shown no effect on normal operation of the computer, nor any slowdown in its speed. It utilizes a hidden toolbar above the top of the screen that pops down when needed. To create a shortcut, you just need to click on the "Add" icon and select from a list of choices that includes substitute text, launch a program, navigate to an Internet site, send e-mail and more. These shortcuts can be triggered anytime and from any application, even from the Window's desktop view.

ActiveWords is available for downloading from its Web site for 60 days of free use and can then be purchased for $20 for the basic version and $50 for the advanced. Once purchased it can be used on up to three computers.

The only difficulty I experienced is recalling all of the abbreviations I created!


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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