Why is exchanging contact information still stuck in 2001?

I remember being really excited about a feature on my very first PDA (a Sony CLIÉ PEG-s320): the ability to transfer contacts wirelessly to another Palm OS device. It worked over the IR port at the top of the unit, and with a single gesture, a long stroke from the “Graffiti” area to the top of the screen with the stylus (ignore me here if you haven’t used a Palm from back in the day, it’s not essential to the rest of the story), you could send your own contact information to anyone standing in front of you with their Palm device. I used this feature exactly once.

Despite being dead-simple to perform this transfer, and despite my own geeky fetish for technology, the way I usually exchange contact information hasn’t changed at all since 2001–the year I bought my first mobile phone. Most of the time I’m stuck saying my number aloud to someone for them to tap into their mobile phone. Then they’ll have to tediously enter in my name in a flurry of thumbing their numerical keypad, and finally, confirm the transfer by calling my phone (giving me access to their number). What a pain! especially compared with speed, elegance, and technological bliss of the one time I was able to transfer my number wirelessly. The whole process of transferring numbers took about 10 seconds–name, email, home, mobile–in both directions.

At the time, I had an easy answer for why I was only able to use this feature once in the lifetime of my device: I was the only person who had one! Sure, business-types carried them around (especially those who couldn’t afford a meatspace personal assistant), but no one at JFK high school did. Even when I arrived at Olin College of Engineering, surrounded by a selection of the most geeky minds in the US, no one I knew regularly carried a PDA. What they did carry were mobile phones and laptops. Now, exchanging contact information via laptop was relatively well implemented–via email. Some people at Olin even attached an electronic business card to every outgoing email they sent. But most people still didn’t have a good way to get contacts from the computer to mobile phone without manually typing it in. This was in the days when wireless carriers would sell the cables which connected phones to computers at extortion prices, and offered to transfer your contacts when you upgraded your phone for a $40 fee.

I dreamed of the day when everyone would carry a connected device around with them. Well, those days have arrived, as Bluetooth support has expanded from the high-end phones down to the masses. In my visions of the future, I’d be “beaming” my number far more often than I said it aloud. Unfortunately, I’ve used Bluetooth to transfer files to another device exactly thrice. Once was simply out of curiosity, between myself and my friend who had a Bluetooth-enabled MacBook, once was an attempt to transfer a program from my other friend’s phone to mine (it failed), and once was to share a photo I had taken of young woman with one of her admirers. I have never used Bluetooth to exchange contact information. Why is this, when so many devices support it?

Business-types are even further back in the stone age. When people go to conferences and networking events, they exchange contact information on fancy little pieces of card-stock, rather than fancy little gadgets with buttons. The idea hasn’t changed since people started putting their phone numbers on cards in addition to their names. “My card, Sir,” you say in a cheesy Victorian huff.

I wonder how many of my friends are even aware that their phones have Bluetooth capability. I further wonder how many have figured out how to use it, and how many have tried. My iPhone doesn’t even include this feature; Bluetooth functionality is limited to hands-free devices. The days of initiating this ability with ease are gone: the feature is often buried under a stack of menus, and to make matters worse, a couple of Bluetooth-born pathogens have convinced many people to keep it disabled when not in use. This means that to initiate a contact swap, people often have to dig through some menus to turn Bluetooth on, then dig through some more to send their information. Yawn.

Still, even if Bluetooth isn’t the best way to give out your number in a busy cocktail bar, you’d think people would still use it in another situation: rebuilding your phonebook after you lose your mobile. On a side note, I’m somewhat taken aback by how few people bother to create a regular backup of their mobile phonebook, considering the misery it is to rebuild it. But that aside, if I were to have lost all my contact numbers, the first thing I’d do after getting a new mobile is sit down with a friend that hangs out with most of the same people, and push the numbers over Bluetooth from their phone to mine. But no. Every other week I get another invitation to another Facebook group, “Dumbass has lost his mobile. Numbers please!! ;).”

From an interaction design standpoint, we need to go a bit retro. The Palm IR-based swap has two important features which deserve to be reintroduced:

  1. It was fast and easy–a swipe of the stylus or your fingernail and it was off running, finished in less time than it takes to say the number out loud.
  2. It was directed–the person I wanted to get my number was the person I literally pointed my PDA at. So much simpler than having to choose the other person’s device from a list (like Bluetooth, currently).

I hope we haven’t missed the boat on this one yet! A clever design (software and interaction) and marketing could set this idea of sharing via Bluetooth or other short-range protocol back on track. Lots of new classes of devices are shipping with Bluetooth support: cameras, laptops, car-stereos, even the fabled Microsoft Surface.

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