I spent last week in Boston, attending the Open Mobile Alliance meeting. Whenever one goes to meetings, one does the dance of the business card exchange. Because it was my first OMA meeting, I had more of it going on than usual, as I met a lot of people for the first time. So I’ve collected a batch of 2-inch × 3.5-inch cards, which I then have to copy information from and put it into my address book. And there’s no hope of reading these things without my reading glasses.

They’re inconvenient, to be sure, but they do work, and we’re used to them. Everyone has them. And guess what:

PokenNo one tried to pull out a poken.

Yes, some folks have come up with another idea for an electronic business card. We tried various mechanisms for “beaming” contact information between mobile devices, but none of them caught on because of setup issues and security concerns. Some people have even tried passing out memory devices with their data loaded onto them, but that’s just too expensive to be practical. Now we have poken.

Basically, it’s a revisiting of “beaming”, but with some twists that resolve many of the problems we had with that in the past. There’s no setup issue — you touch your poken to mine, and we record each other as contacts. Because physical contact (or at least very close proximity) is required, most of the security problems are gone (they had to do with remote reading). The poken devices are even meant to be “fun”, looking like goofy characters with overly large “hands”, and the exchange is made to resemble a handshake. A device costs about $20... a little expensive for what it is, but certainly cheaper than a box of cards from a professional printer.

A poken can hold 64 contacts. I can’t tell from the web site what happens when it’s full — whether I can still give out my information, even if I can’t receive any more. But, still, we’ve all had that occasion when we arrived at a day of meetings with only two cards left. Damn! Forgot to reload. That seems less likely to be a problem here. Also, the poken timestamps the information exchange, so you know when you got your contact’s “card”. That seems like it could be handy.

Possibly the “fun” aspect is one that’s blocked it from the business community so far. Business cards are businesslike. Poken are toys.

But beyond that, the system introduces its own issues.

The main one is that you aren’t actually exchanging information. What you’re exchanging are, essentially, poken access tokens, which you take to the poken web site to get access to the real information (which then, in turn, points to a profile somewhere else, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, as chosen by each contact). Related to that, the reason there aren’t any setup problems is that it’s a single, proprietary system. Everyone has to have a poken, not any other device. Everyone has to sign up at the poken web site. Poken, thus, has all your contact information. Most people won’t be bothered by that. Some will.

Also, here’s what the “How does it work?” page says about accessing contacts, emphasis mine:

Your contacts can view your Poken Card on doyoupoken.com, but, if they want to see more, they only have to click the logo to see your profile on the social networking site you’ve chosen to share. On the Poken site you and your friends can view your contacts alphabetically, or chronologically in your “social timeline.” You can also send messages, group contacts with a label, write notes for yourself about each contact, and so much more.
Here, again: my friends can view my contacts. Are “friends”, here, the same as “contacts”? If so, I certainly don’t want all my contacts to see all my contacts. If not, then, despite their protestations to the contrary, poken is setting up yet another social networking site. In any case, it’s clear that their success is directly connected to how many people join. And, since they have access to all the contacts of their members (you can bet there’ll be a way to upload non-poken contacts to their system, part of the “so much more”), there’s a great deal of proselytizing, data mining, and second-level marketing available to them here.

Whether or not any of this bothers you, it’s likely that you’d want to export your contacts from poken and import them to some other address book or contact list. The web site doesn’t mention anything about that capability. If it exists, it’s certain to be a manual process. Having some new service that manages your contacts might be inconvenient.

Of course, in order for two devices to be able to exchange data, they must have power — they have small lithium batteries. According to the faq, the battery “should last approximately six (6) months,” but heavy use will reduce that. Better be sure you have a spare battery to hand.

Another serious issue is what will happen to your contact information if the company should collapse. Of course, your device itself would become less “fun” in that case. More importantly, though, you’d probably lose your contacts unless you’ve been able to export them, and have done so regularly. And if the company is bought as part of a bankruptcy restructuring (or even a run-of-the-mill acquisition), what might the new owners of your data do with it?

The poken idea does seem to be getting some adoption by the younger, cooler set, so maybe it will catch on and succeed. I’ll watch it, and see what happens. Meanwhile, you can have my business card.