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Going digital: The new look of business cards

The business card isn't dead. It's just evolving.

A cottage industry of startups has sprung up around the slow but steady transformation of the business card from something you keep in your wallet to something you keep in your smartphone.

With more and more people carrying tiny computers in their pockets, the limitations of the traditional cards are glaring. Perhaps the most obvious is the decidedly static nature of paper-based cards.

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In contrast, with applications such as Prestoh, users can tether their digital business cards to their LinkedIn profiles. And while paper cards often end up lost in a coat pocket or desk drawer, digital cards can be programmed to burrow into a new acquaintance's smartphone address book.

"We're making the business card interactive," says Donal Byrne, co-founder of Toronto-based Prestoh, which lets users build phone-based, digital business cards.

"I can shake your hand, point you to a QR code and bring you to a mobile environment that lets you learn more about my company," he said, referring to the scrambled "quick response" symbols that can be scanned by a smartphone, linking the user to a website

Essentially, Mr. Byrne's startup and others like it aim to transform business cards into mini mobile websites. Salespeople, for example, can add buttons to their digital cards that, when pressed, take the user to a website that contains more information about the product or service being sold.

Still, even Mr. Byrne does not believe the traditional business card is going away completely. But what is appearing on those cards is changing rapidly. And rather than adding all manner of new information – from Twitter handles to LinkedIn profiles to QR codes – many people are keeping their business cards as bare-bones as possible.

Kunal Gupta, chief executive officer of Canadian mobile-app developer Polar Mobile, has pulled the address and telephone number from his corporate business card. Now, his cards carry his only his name, title, Twitter user name and the website address for his Toronto company.

"I found, in this day and age, people don't really call you out of the blue; everything is scheduled," he said, explaining why he dropped the phone number. "And there's no address because we see ourselves as a global company. It doesn't really matter where you're based."

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Mr. Gupta's business card may become even less crowded, as he takes more of his conversations to the social web. "I wouldn't be surprised if one day we don't even have an e-mail address on there."

Perhaps the most popular style of minimalist business card is based on a design by Vancouver software engineer Boris Smus. In 2010, he realized that if someone bought the right web domain and twitter handle, he or she could include a wealth of information inside a single e-mail address.

For example, if John Smith bought the domain name and the Twitter handle @JohnSmith, he could convey all that information by highlighting different parts of the e-mail address . Using that simple premise, Mr. Smus designed a business card that contains a person's first name, last name, e-mail, Twitter user name and website – all in a single line of text.

"When I give out the card, some people don't understand it immediately, but many clever tech dorks immediately get it," Mr. Smus said. "Inadvertently it turned into a sort of litmus test to figure out who I'm dealing with."

Since writing about his design on his blog, he has seen his minimalist business card idea go viral, with countless others copying it for their own cards.

But even Mr. Smus's own pared-down design might be too cumbersome for him. He said he rarely uses business cards, preferring to look up new acquaintances online and follow their various social media accounts.

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"Before [the minimalist cards], I had regular work-issued business cards," he recalled. "They were pretty generic. They had the number of the desk phone – which I never once received a work call on."

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