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Making the connection: The role of collaboration apps in digital transformation

Whether it’s retailers plying wares online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores, media companies swapping print for pixels or companies looking to empower frontline workers, one theme is increasingly common in business: digital platforms are now fundamental to success — and that success depends on employees who can collaborate in real time, at any time and from anywhere.

With widely distributed employees and and a more mobile workforce, many companies have had to shift gears quickly in recent years to stay competitive. Critical to that effort is the ability to share information and ideas effectively using the latest communication and collaboration tools. The rise of real-time messaging apps like Slack, videoconferencing apps like Skype for Business and online file-sharing apps like Dropbox has given companies a host of tools they can use to underpin corporate growth and connectivity.

In particular, the growing adoption of team-based collaboration software and revamped business processes has helped organizations become more agile.

“Companies that utilize team collaboration applications report having significantly increased group and personal productivity, have faster time to market, and execute projects [faster],” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC.

But getting employees to all row in the same direction — and even use the same software to do so — isn’t easy. Corporate execs, fully aware of the importance of modern digital tools to support their workforce, find themselves playing catch-up to match the apps and devices their employees rely on outside the office.

Better connectivity means smarter, more engaged workers

“Consumers now expect one click to buy, two clicks to return. And when those consumers go to work, they expect that same ease of collaboration, communication, and getting things done that they enjoy when they’re at home and working in their communities or their families,” said Kurtzman. 

A report from Deloitte showed that almost 80% of corporate execs rate employee experience as important, but only 22% called their companies “excellent” at creating a productive environment for workers.

That gap indicates where companies are increasingly putting their efforts as they scour the digital landscape for the right tools to keep employees productive — and happy.

Doing so is critical to both attracting and retaining workers. “After all, why should they be able to collaborate more easily at home or for their children’s football clubs than they can at work?” asked Kurtzman. “It makes sense to have the same depth of communication, collaboration and the ability to get things done that they enjoy outside of the workplace.”

The digital experience for workers should match that of customers, Jeffrey Mann, a VP analyst at Gartner, said in a recent research note.

“…All too often, the employee experience is an afterthought for business and application leaders,” wrote Mann. “They ignore the relevance to workers of the proven lessons from marketing and customer relationship management regarding the customer experience. Many of the same techniques used to create happy customers can be applied to encourage productive employees.”

At Valet Living, a residential concierge and amenities service provider, Facebook’s Workplace enterprise social network is now used to connect 6,000 employees — 90% of whom work part-time — across 40 states. The deployment has helped on-board new staff members faster.

“Understandably, it’s been difficult to on-board associates in a consistent and thorough manner until we adopted online collaboration tools,” said Henry Toledo, chief people officer at Valet Living.

Workers can access relevant training materials through a platform they’re already familiar with in their personal lives, said Toledo.

We know it’s critical to arm our associates with the skills needed to succeed and offer a consistent experience to our clients and residents, so we created a library of training resources, including our online training database, Valet U,  giving all new associates the chance to get up to speed quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The ability to connect a disparate workforce using digital collaboration tools — previously impossible via email alone, said Toledo — has led to tangible business benefits and reduced employee turnover.

“As we increasingly collaborate across the organization, we’ve noticed a direct correlation between connectedness and a steady rise in Valet Living’s associate retention rate,” he said. “We saw a 20% increase in associate retention since Workplace was introduced just a year ago — a testimony to our ability to make our associates feel welcomed from the jump.”

At Weight Watchers, company execs found that rolling out Workplace to 18,000 employees worldwide in 2018 helped with internal knowledge-sharing.

“One of the big questions or challenges [we had] was how do we bring everyone together?” Stacie Sherer, senior vice president for corporate communications, said in an earlier interview. “How do we break down the silos between our different geographies, and how do we break down the silos between our corporate head offices and all of the folks who are out in the field, who may only work a few hours a week but want to feel part of something bigger?”

Employees applauded the move, Sherer said. “One respondent said, ‘I feel like I work down the corridor [from] colleagues in other countries — I feel like I know them so well because of the connections they make on here,’” she said. “Because you can craft your own profile and there are groups around personal interests in addition to all the groups focused on work collaboration and communication, you get to know your colleagues in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

A culture of collaboration

Many businesses now realize the need to improve collaboration to stay competitive; not surprisingly, spending on social software and collaboration tools has been on the rise. According to Gartner, it’s expected to reach $4.8 billion in 2023 — almost double the estimated $2.7 billion spent in 2018.

A survey of roughly 40 digital transformations by Boston Consulting Group found that organizations that focused on cultural change as part of their digital transformation projects had a much higher rate of financial success (90%) than those that neglected culture (17%).

Financial software vendor Intuit, for instance, is using its transformation efforts to focus more on innovation, less on managing infrastructure. “Digital transformation is as much a mindset and cultural shift as it is a business and technical shift,” said Intuit CIO Atticus Tysen.

The company has been using Slack’s workstream collaboration app to bolster idea-sharing among staffers, no matter their location. “Slack is one way we connect our global workforce across different sites and locations through near instantaneous messaging, while also creating opportunities for like-minded individuals or teams to have an area for ongoing dialogue that doesn’t require long meetings or multiple emails,” Tysen said.

“Using Slack, we are enabling the mindset and cultural shift of finding more opportunities to work efficiently at scale.”

Another Slack user, data analytics company Splunk, has had similar experiences.

“For us, Slack was the promise of really starting to change the communication culture,” said Fred McAmis, vice president for learning and development, at Splunk.

Before deploying the app, Splunk relied on a variety of different tools to communicate. “Marketing had one tool, while product and engineering had another,” he said. “When our CTO joined, he chose Slack for engineering. It started as a pilot project and quickly spread across the organization.”

Today, short, targeted instant messages help teams push projects along. “It’s real-time, while e-mail is very formal in comparison,” he said.

Improved collaboration processes are also helping the company stay agile as business scales. “At Splunk, our employee base continues to grow year over year, which means it’s imperative to maintain the company experience,” said McAmis.

Clear pathways for professional development help employees stay motivated, he said. And there is a Slack channel for leadership courses that are available to employees at all levels of the business.

“While training is the main event, I believe learning takes reinforcement,” McAmis said. “So we use Slack to supplement the training and offer a way for our people to stay in touch and remind themselves of what they learned. Slack gives us the ability to share knowledge quickly and create knowledge databases.”

The next big push: digital tools for frontline workers

Much of the focus of digital transformation in recent years has been on office workers. But enterprise software vendors are now targeting collaboration, communication and productivity tools at a wider range of employees, such as retail, manufacturing and healthcare staff. These frontline service and task workers represent a burgeoning area of investment for many organizations.

That’s especially true of Microsoft, which has been targeting frontline workers since late 2018. “[Frontline workers are] a massive segment of workers around the world that are currently pretty drastically underserved by technology,” Emma Williams, corporate vice president of Modern Workplace Verticals at Microsoft, argued last year. “What we are delivering is a customizable experience that really focuses on a mobile-first worker based on their role.”

Those comments came as the company added a raft of updates to its Teams collaboration tool to woo frontline workers. Those additions included new mobile app functions, integrations with third-party scheduling apps and an employee “praise” tool.

One company that’s used Teams to successfully engage frontline workers is Virginia-based Ferguson, a plumbing supply company. The company rolled out Teams and sparked a shift to channel-based communications in a way that helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.

The change was especially important for showroom consultants who must answer customer questions, repeatedly check stock and generally assist with purchases.

“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for this product; do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson, explained last year. “That has not been a great experience for the customer — it can take time.”

Using Teams channels, the sales staffers at Ferguson can now quickly send a request for info to the back office using their mobile device, allowing them to better focus on customers. “They can continue to service the customer, but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or … [leave] sitting around waiting.”

That kind of change can lead to more efficiency, engaged workers — and happier customers.

Although many organizations are just now beginning to invest in tools for frontline employees, more money is likely on the way as the business case becomes clearer. And the evolution of the workplace, already well under way, will continue.

“We’re at the beginning of making every worker a knowledge worker,” said Kurtzman. “The collaboration of an enterprise runs much more efficiently the more ideas that are there, the more ideas that can be acted upon.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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OneNote vs. Evernote: A personal take on two great note-taking apps

What’s the king of the note-taking apps?

There are two leading contenders for the crown: Microsoft’s OneNote and the independent Evernote. Launched in 2003, OneNote was added to Microsoft Office in 2007 and is now bundled with Windows 10 and also offered for free as a standalone product. Evernote launched in 2008 and has enjoyed steadily increasing user numbers since then; the company now says it has 225 million users worldwide. (Microsoft hasn’t released user numbers for OneNote, but between Office and Windows 10, more than a billion users likely have a version of it installed on their machines.)

OneNote and Evernote are available for all the major desktop and mobile OSes, they can each sync your notes to all of your devices and the web, and both promise to be the only note-taking app you need. But they also have some very distinct differences. So which is better for business users?

I’m a longtime user of both applications, so I’ve taken a look at the latest version of each for Windows, macOS, iPad, iPhone and Android. This isn’t a deep-dive review, but rather a personal look at what I like and don’t much like about each — and the main points of difference between the two. I spend more time on the Windows version of each, but I’ll note similarities and differences in other versions as well.

Note that there are two versions of OneNote for Windows: a desktop app and a Windows 10 app, also known as a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) app. As I write this, the desktop version, although available for free as a separate download, is not included with Office 2019 or Office 365. That’s because Microsoft had planned to kill the desktop app and focus instead on the UWP app. However, the company  changed course in late 2019, announcing that it will continue to add new features to desktop version of OneNote and that the desktop version will once again be included with Office 365 as of March 2020. In this review, I look at the desktop version of OneNote, because the UWP app has far fewer features.

OneNote: A great way to get organized

OneNote is very much a full-blown application. It lets you create simple or complex notes from scratch, organize them into searchable, browsable notebooks, and sync them among a variety of platforms, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPads and iPhones, Android devices and the web.

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OneNote offers top-notch tools for creating notes from scratch and organizing them intelligently. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)

It bristles with note-creation tools for drawing, recording audio and video, scanning images, embedding spreadsheets and reviewing the edits of others (although the abilities of those tools differ somewhat depending on the platform). In fact, its note-creation tools are more comprehensive than Evernote’s.

The organization-minded will appreciate OneNote’s basic structure. You create individual notebooks; within each notebook, you can create section groups that contain multiple sections. Each section has individual pages, with each page a separate note. It’s ideal for organizing content with a logical structure.

For example, if you’re using OneNote to keep track of notes about your sales staff, you could have a Sales Staff notebook, then section groups for each salesperson, and within each of those section groups there might be sections for each of their customers. Within each of those customer sections, you could have individual pages, with notes about the salesperson’s relationship with them, and include links to sales figures.

OneNote is gradually becoming more integrated with the rest of the Office 365 suite. For instance, every team in Microsoft Teams gets a shared OneNote notebook where they can collaborate on notes.

Web clipping

As good as OneNote is at creating notes, it falls short of Evernote’s considerable capabilities for clipping content from the web.

OneNote offers a browser add-on called the OneNote Web Clipper for Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox. Note that you need to sign in to the extension with a Microsoft account to use it.

The OneNote Web Clipper interface is generally the same in all browsers. When you’re on a web page from which you want to clip content, click the Clip to OneNote icon in the browser’s toolbar and choose to clip the entire page, a section of the page (click and drag to select it), or just the article in a simple-to-read format without ads and other distractions. You can also save the page as a bookmark. Once you decide the kind of clip you want, you can save it directly to any OneNote notebook.

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The OneNote browser add-on lets you clip an entire web page, a section of the page or a simplified article and save your clipping in OneNote.

The web clipper has some problems, though. It is frequently temperamental and flaky when trying to capture full-page clips. In some instances, it captures a link to the page instead of the page itself. In other instances, it won’t even do that, and instead displays an error message that reads, “No content found. Try another clipping mode.” When it does manage to capture an entire page, it sometimes overlays content with other content, making the page difficult to read. And for heavy pages, such as those with video on them, you’ll have to wait several seconds for the full preview to load before you can click the Clip button.

What’s more, if you capture the full page or a region of a page, the clip is saved as a graphic image only, so that any links or multimedia elements on the page don’t work. You can add your own text above and below that image, but you can’t edit the content shown in the image.

The clipper did a better job of capturing articles instead of the entire page, although it doesn’t capture video when you use this option. When you capture clips this way, the links on them work, and you can edit the text as you can any other kind of text, including deleting it, copying it, adding to it, changing its formatting and so on.

The differences among versions

It’s in Windows where OneNote really shines, because that’s where it has its full complement of note-creation tools. It’s also where its heritage as an Office application is clearest, because it uses the Office Ribbon as a way to give you access to all of its features.

OneNote for Windows has eight Ribbon tabs — File, Home, Insert, Draw, History, Review, View and Help — each of which gives you access to plenty of features. (To save screen space, you can press Ctrl-F1 to make the Ribbon commands underneath the tabs disappear or reappear later.) The File tab lets you open, print, share and export files; change settings; and more. The Home tab lets you format text, add tags, mark items as important and more. The Insert tab offers tools for inserting objects into your notes, including spreadsheets, pictures, audio and video you can record, equations and symbols.

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In OneNote’s Windows app, the Office Ribbon offers the full suite of OneNote’s tools.

The Draw tab has the usual drawing tools, while History helps you collaborate with others, showing you other users’ recent edits and comments, and so on. Review includes familiar Office features including a spell checker, a thesaurus and a translation tool. View has plenty of ways to change the appearance of your notebooks and their pages, such as adding lines, changing their size, changing the colors and so on, and Help lets you search for help information, contact tech support and give feedback to Microsoft. Evernote has nothing approaching this array of sophisticated tools.

Each page you create is a blank slate that lets you add text, images, media and objects in a freeform way, moving them around and formatting them with ease. For those who want to spend the time, it can mean creating extremely rich pages. But if all you want is text, that’s simple to do as well.

The iPad and Mac versions have the same basic look, feel and organization as the Windows version, although with fewer features. (The Mac version has more capabilities than does the iPad version.) They have only four tabs across the top: Home, Insert, Draw and View.

In some instances the tabs are as fully featured as in the Windows version — the Mac’s Home tab, for example, includes all of the formatting and other capabilities of the Windows version. (The iPad doesn’t have as many capabilities.) Other tabs have fewer features — notably the Insert tab. There, the Mac and iPad versions allow you to insert a number basic items such as tables, pictures, files, links, PDFs, equations, and the date and time. You can also record audio and take screenshots (on the Mac) or photos (with the iPad’s camera) and insert those. But you can’t insert spreadsheets, online pictures or videos, or record video as you can with the Windows version.

The web version of OneNote features the tabbed design as the Windows, Mac and iPad versions, with the same basic feature set as the Mac and iPad versions. It also lets you open a page or notebook in the client version of OneNote on the device on which you’re working, if the device has OneNote installed.

The Android tablet version looks and works much like the iPad version, with Home, Insert, Draw and View tabs, although it’s not as fully featured. For example, the Insert tab only lets you insert pictures, audio, to-do items, tags and links.

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The iPhone version of OneNote features a simple-to-navigate, stripped-down interface.

The interface for iPhones and Android phones is much simpler than on PCs or tablets. You see your section groups in a scrollable list, and can then navigate easily down into individual sections and pages. It doesn’t have tabs, given the limited screen real estate on phones, and it’s built mainly for quick-and-dirty note taking or checking your existing notes.

Storage and pricing

OneNote syncs its content among all of your devices and to the web via Microsoft OneDrive. If you buy the non-subscription version of Office or use the free OneNote app, you get up to 5GB of cloud storage space for everything including your OneNote content, although you can buy additional storage space. If you or your organization pays for an Office 365 subscription, you get much more storage — 1TB to 6TB, depending on the version you buy. Businesses get 1TB of storage per user. (Here are the various plans for OneDrive storage for personal and business use.)

Evernote: The best web-clipping tool you can find

Evernote is a completely different beast than OneNote. Although it offers the same basic functionality — the ability to create, organize and sync notes among multiple platforms, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPads and iPhones, Windows Phones, Android devices and the web — it feels as if it was not primarily designed for creating notes from scratch, but instead for clipping content from the web.

The application’s features and layout are similar among all platforms. The left-hand side of the screen is used for navigation; click or tap Notebooks to see list of all of your notebooks, and then click or tap each individual notebook to see all of its notes in a scrollable list. If you prefer, you can tap All Notes at the top of the screen to see all of your notes in a scrollable list, regardless of the notebook in which they’re located. For easy searching, you can add tags to each note when you write it or capture it; the main navigation also lets you view your notes by tags.

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Evernote’s features and layout are similar among all platforms; this is the Windows version.

I find Evernote to be more visually compelling than OneNote on the iPad and Mac. The display is particularly attractive when you scroll through a notebook, with the list of notes in the notebook showing small graphics pulled from each note.

Evernote doesn’t have nearly as many note-creation tools as OneNote. There are the usual text formatting tools, and you can embed tables, files and pictures in your notes; use electronic “ink” on them if you have a touch device with a pen; and record audio and video as part of your notes. You can also set reminders on notes, with dates you’d like to receive email and in-app notifications. It’s a reasonable selection but doesn’t include OneNote’s advanced features, such as reviewing the edits of others.

Web clipping

Where Evernote really shines is in capturing content from the web, organizing that content and making it easy for you to find it and use it.

Its web-clipping tool is exemplary. The tool runs as a browser add-on for Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Safari, and Opera; the exact features vary somewhat from browser to browser. In general, I’ve found the Chrome version to be the most robust, able to handle even the most complex web pages.

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Evernote’s exemplary clipping tool runs as a browser add-on and lets you capture content using a variety of options.

With most browsers, when you’re on a page from which you want to capture content, click the Evernote icon in the toolbar and the clipper appears on the right-hand side with a variety of options, including:

  • capturing just the article itself, eliminating ads and other unnecessary material
  • capturing a “simplified article” — just text and graphics without the original layout or videos
  • capturing the full page as you see it
  • capturing only a bookmark to the page
  • capturing a screenshot of the page
  • capturing only the content of a Gmail message (available only in Chrome, Safari, and Opera)

When you clip something from the web, you can also add tags and notes. And you can choose which notebook you want to add the content to or create a new notebook on the fly. In addition, the clipper has markup tools when you capture screenshots, so that you can annotate what you’re capturing by adding text, highlighting, arrows, drawing on it, and so on. In your browser after you save a clip, you’ll see a Share button that lets you share the note with colleagues or share a link to the original source via email or social media.

Once you’ve captured the content, you can do more with it. When you open the note in Evernote, the text is live — you can copy it, paste to it, edit it, change the formatting and so on. The links are live as well, so that you can click any link and have it open in your browser. Any multimedia on the page, such as video, isn’t live, though — click it and you’re sent to the original page you captured.

The differences among versions

Evernote sports a similar look and feel across its Windows, Mac and web apps, with the iPad looking somewhat different. In the desktop and web apps, click the Notebooks icon on the left side of the screen, and your notebooks show up in an alphabetical list. Click any notebook to see a scrollable list of its notes; click a note to see it. You can also create shortcuts to particular notebooks and notes, then click the star icon in the left-hand navigation to see them all.

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The web version of Evernote lets you see a long, scrollable list of all your notes, and also lets you quickly switch to a notebook.

On the iPad version, you tap a down arrow at the top left of the screen to see the list of notebooks. Tap a notebook to see its notes.

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Evernote’s iPhone app makes it easy to quickly search through your notes via the Search box at the top of the screen.

The Android and iPhone apps are similar to one another — they represent each note as part of a scrollable list of rectangular cards; each card has the note title on top and any pictures from the note displayed on it. Like the web version, the mobile apps offer the Shortcuts feature.

It’s worth noting that Evernote is working on improving the service’s infrastructure and making its interface more consistent across platforms. There’s a beta version of the web app available that debuts a few new features, including a new to-do list format that makes it easier to see at a glance which items have been completed.

Storage and pricing

The basic version of Evernote is free, but it limits you to adding 60MB of new notes a month, lets you sync between only two devices, and doesn’t include advanced features. There are Premium and Business subscriptions available, which have differing features such as whether you can turn notes into presentations; search inside PDFs and attachments; integrate with other software and services such as Slack, Outlook and Salesforce; and perform team collaboration. Premium, meant for individuals, costs $8 a month and lets you upload 10GB per month. Business costs $15 per user per month and includes 20GB per user plus an additional shared 2GB per user.

Bottom line

Although Evernote and OneNote are both note-taking tools, they have very different emphases and can be used for quite different purposes.

If you’re primarily looking for a tool that lets you easily capture, organize and find content from the web, you’ll want Evernote, because its tools for doing that are exemplary. If you instead want to create notes from scratch and have them in well-organized notebooks, or if you’re a heavy Office 365 user, OneNote is the way to go.

Then again, you may be like me. I’ve been using both of them for years. OneNote is my go-to tool for organizing and taking notes for projects such as books and articles. I use Evernote for research. Given that they’re both free (at least for the basic version of Evernote), it gives me the best of both worlds.

This article was originally published in March 2014 and most recently updated in January 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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iPhone apps, blockchain and the future of food

If you could verify how your food was grown, treated and distributed using an iPhone app, blockchain and a packaging code, would you? IBM thinks you might.

From the cradle to the plate

Everyone knows that food standards aren’t equal. Nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of chickens destined for your plate. Some are reared in conditions considered cruel by many consumers, people who will vote with their wallets for better treatment if they are informed.

It’s not too different when it comes to vegetables, some of which travel enormous distances before reaching your local store.

Modern consumers are more concerned with the environmental impact of these journeys than ever before and want to be able to check this almost as much as they want to verify the safety of pesticides used during the growth cycle.

You don’t usually get access to such information, and if you do it is quite hard to truly verify that the data you are provided with is correct. That’s where blockchain comes into play – as does your iPhone or other mobile devices.

What IBM is doing

IBM at CES 2020 introduced a new app that uses blockchain to link consumers up with the farmers who grow their coffee beans. The idea is that when you are purchasing coffee, you can use the app on your mobile device to check where it comes from, how it’s grown, distributed, shipped, exported, blended and roasted.

The problem with accessing this information across the typical distribution cycle is that different entities are usually responsible for each step of the process. This means that no one group gathers all the data.

Using blockchain

IBM is using blockchain as a permanent and trusted way to track what takes place across the cycle. Each party in the process has an exact copy of the information held on the blockchain, adding their own data during the journey. They don’t need to add other people’s, as that information is already in the chain.

When it comes to coffee purchasers, they get full insight into the journey. All this data is made available using a QR code, your smartphone and the upcoming Thank my Farmer app.

There’s a video here that shows a little of how this works.

The idea is that the app connects consumers to farmers, traders and others, and uses an interactive map to show you what happened to the coffee you buy.

You can learn more about this in the statement, but one point stands out:

“Coffee drinkers today consume more than half a trillion cups per year, and as many as two-thirds of consumers aged 19-24 surveyed say they prefer to buy coffee that is sustainably grown and responsibly sourced.”

In other words, younger consumers are deeply committed to sustainability and responsible business practices.

The new normal?

I think this app represents what will become normalized thought, as this way of looking at consuming is adopted. Consumers will leanr to expect access to this kind of information.

They will expect to be able to verify the life cycle of products they purchase using an app, even while they are in the mall. 

Raj Rao, General Manager of the IBM Food Trust, puts it this way:

“Blockchain is more than aspirational business tech, it is used today to transform how people can build trust in the goods they consume. For business, it can drive greater transparency and efficiency.”

Trust and transparency

IBM supports Farmer Connect, which is part of the partnership behind Thank My Farmer. The organization seeks to use digital technologies to create an ecosystem for small farmers that will drive supply chain efficiency and connect consumers with the people who grow what they eat.

But it’s not just about efficiency. It’s about trust and transparency, and just as blockchain technology enables this in pharmaceuticals, health records, data security and financial affairs, it should also empower consumers with valuable insights that will guide future purchasing decisions in other fields.

It has impact at both ends of the chain, of course: In the case of food supply, making such insights available should benefit small independent concerns who can coalesce their business around the delivery of provably high-quality products.

For example, customers who care might choose to support a small organic farm above a multinational firm that perhaps holds lower standards – particularly when identifying the difference is enabled by a tool you can use just by pointing your iPhone camera at a product label in your local retail store.

Up next

Retailers know consumers already pull out their iPhone to check product prices while they shop. Many now offer to price match if better prices are found online.

IBM’s work places a new string to this bow. Sure, price-conscious buyers will still be led by cost above quality. But blockchain-based cradle-to-plate solutions such as the coffee app mean iPhone users will be better informed on quality, sustainability and environmental responsibility when they shop.

The process closes the circle between growers and consumers, educating all involved with insight into each other, presumably enabling better personalization and enhanced customer satisfaction.

The mobile disruption of every business still continues, 13 years since the introduction of the first iPhone. Perhaps Apple will use similar technologies to answer critics of its own supply chain practices?

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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10 top distributed apps (dApps) for blockchain

Imagine an application that doesn’t run on one server but harnesses the excess power of thousands of computers globally and that can be controlled by business automation software that ensures if a specific parameter is met, only then can a function be carried out.

That’s a distributed application – or dApp, as it’s sometimes abbreviated – and there are thousands available for download.

Running atop a blockchain, peer-to-peer (P2P) network that acts as a kind of operating system, dApps create an innovative open-source software ecosystem that is both secure and resilient. And it allows developers to create new online tools, many of which have piqued the interest of global business markets.

“DApps will pool resources across numerous machines globally,” said Juniper senior analyst Lauren Foye. “The results are applications which do not belong to a sole entity, [but] rather are community-driven.”

Bitcoin was arguably the first dApp, enabling anyone in the world to downloaded a bit of open-source code to join a blockchain network and verify transactions using a “mining” algorithm, thereby generating digital currency (cryptocurrency) as a reward.

Like a RAIDed storage array, if one of the computers (or nodes) running the dApp software goes down, another node instantaneously resumes the task.

Because smart contracts, or self-executing business automation software, can interact with dApps, they’re able to remove administrative overhead, making them one of most attractive features associated with blockchain. While blockchain acts as an immutable electronic ledger, confirming that transactions have taken place, smart contracts execute pre-determined conditions; think about a smart contract as a computer executing on “if/then,” or conditional, programming.

“DApps interact with smart contracts that are on the blockchain. So dApps support the user interface into the back-end smart contract that writes data to the blockchain,” said Avivah Litan, a vice president of research at Gartner.

DApps run the gamut, from digital asset exchanges like LBank to online gambling like PokerKing and games like Cryptokitties. (LBank holds the equivalent of more than $1.4 billion in cryptocurrency.)

Depending on the blockchain platform (there are more than a dozen and vastly more modifications of those), dApps are also used by small and large businesses to track and trace goods as they move around the globe and enable cross-border financial transactions without the need of a middleman such as a central bank or clearing house.

The following is a list of 10 game-changing dApps – both business and consumer –  in no particular order, according to industry experts such as Litan, and the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger organization. Some were chosen because of popularity, others because they’re innovative and feature-rich.

This secure middleware is promoting an open standard for a secure, decentralized data input or “oracle” system that validates information from external feeds. In short, Chainlink offers any smart contract secure access to data feeds, APIs and payments.

It’s so promising that Google is testing it as the intermediary for its BigQuery platform-as-a-service data warehouse.

In blockchain, an oracle can be a database or other data source that feeds traditional business information to a smart contract running on a blockchain ledger. Chainlink basically secures the data feed to and from the smart contracts and makes it that much harder to compromise, since it relies on the same types of consensus mechanisms blockchains use to come to agreement on the validity of a transaction.

A smart contract requires multiple inputs to prove contractual performance and Chainlink, which can connect to any API, can be used to validate money transfers from a bank or any number of other industry financial players, such as Visa or PayPal. Oraces are needed because smart contracts don’t interface with external systems or information directly; the oracle allows a smart contract to interact with any external system outside the blockchain (or DLT) they run on, according to Gartner.

“This function is critical, especially in permissioned blockchain use cases, so that smart contracts can automatically and reliably respond to changing external circumstances, events and information. Some common examples in financial services include being notified of changing interest rates or asset prices,” Gartner said.

A web browser with almost 9 million active users, Brave is attempting to turn the online advertising model upside down by putting consumers in the driver’s seat. The app creates a new measure of value in the advertising world where “consumer attention” is used to set value more than unverifiable views or clicks on a webpage, Gartner said in its Cool Vendors in Blockchain Applications report. 

Co-founded by Brendan Eich, inventor of JavaScript and a founder of Mozilla and Firefox, Brave seeks to create a blockchain-based digital advertising and services platform that gives both information control and privacy back to users – an increasingly hot topic after the rollout of GDPR. The dApp enables key participants in the ad ecosystem (namely advertisers, publishers and browser users) to participate in a new business model that cuts out excess intermediation between publishers and advertisers by rewarding users with “Basic Attention Tokens (BATs) or Brave Rewards that can be traded like bitcoin.

“If successful, it will greatly reduce the power and influence of the powerful Internet gatekeepers, e.g. Google and Facebook,” Litan wrote via email.

In this mix, we had to include at least one game. EOS Dynasty, which has nearly 12,000 unique daily users, claims to be the first role-playing, player-versus-player (PvP) game based on blockchain. 

Players create up to three “heroes” or warriors who can fight battles to gain experience and grow in power and capabilities by collecting materials, forging equipment and riding mounts (horses, tigers, tortoises, etc.). The player can also be awarded Three Kingdoms Tokens (TKTs), a limited cryptocurrency (ahem, limited to 1 billion), that enables users to earn material or profit dividends in two marketplaces based on a smart contract.

Tokens are collected through a variety of accomplishments, including trading, battlefield conflicts, tasks and PvP fights. Dividends from the game are only awarded after players reach specific military ranks, enabling them to stake TKT cryptocurrency coins and then earn from them.

A decentralized credit service that runs on the Ethereum blockchain platform, MakerDAO supports Dai, a stablecoin whose value is pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Anyone can use MakerDAO to open a Collateralized Debt Position (CDP), lock in ETH (Ethereum cryptocurrency) as collateral, and generate Dai as debt against that collateral, according to Marta Piekarska-Geater, director of Ecosystem at Hyperledger.

Users can borrow Dai up to 66% of their collateral’s value (150% collateralization ratio).

“CDPs that fall below that rate are subject to a 13% penalty and liquidation (by anyone) to bring the CDP out of default. Liquidated collateral is sold on an open market at a 3% discount,” Piekarska-Geater said via email.

This dApp and consultancy is striving to solve problems with Supplier Information Management systems, which today are slow, inefficient and unable to adapt to new requirements quickly. Chainyard, a permissioned blockchain-based network, is designed to improve supplier validation, onboarding and life cycle information management.

In many cases, supplier information management systems still leverage dated technology and processes; email, spreadsheets and word documents are still used to verify identities and track documents like ISO certifications, bank account info, tax certifications, and certificates of insurance throughout the lifecycle of a supplier.

In partnership with IBM, Chainyard launched Trust Your Supplier, a blockchain-based service giving buyers access to their supplier’s verified background information for the purpose of onboarding them onto a supply chain. The ultimate goal: frictionless connectivity across supply chains.

When it comes to charitabe giving, the “donation sector suffers from lack of transparency and traceability,” Piekarska-Geater said. That’s where TRACEDonate comes in: its identity management platform is designed to allow for transparent and traceable cross-border remittances and giving.

The dApp created by AID:Tech connects charitable organizations and donors to beneficiaries. It hopes to give donors peace of mind that their funds will be used for the intended purposes by those in need, whether it’s for buying groceries or utilities, rather than alcohol, etc., according to Piekarska-Geater.

“It is nearly impossible for regular donors to gain transparency around the distribution of charity and what effect it is having on improving lives,” Piekarska-Geater said. “Unfortunately, this lack of trust affects end-beneficiaries the most, who are also most in need of support.”

Blockchain is used to prove the identity of the charitable organization and/or the individual to which a donation is made. It then allows the donor to track how the money is spent, because the funds are kept in a digital online wallet. Donors can also specify how they want the money used, whether for medical aid, food or other emergency supplies.

Like similar dApps that emerged before it, Circulor is a dApp offering supply chain traceability – in this case for the electric vehicle and electronics industries. It provides traceability to demonstrate the ethical and sustainable sourcing of raw materials used in the production of the latter.

The track-and-trace platform enables users to secure deliveries, manage payments and check provenance of raw materials, and provides a host of other features, making Circulor designed for real-world complexity.

Created by Avanza Innovations, Cipher is middleware that supports a portfolio of four blockchain dApps for government agencies and regulators in different regions; it includes a reconciliation and settlement network, tokenization of loyalty points, a procurement payment network and a document-exchange, verification and compliance network for banks and their customers.

The focus areas for Cipher’s blockchain-based solutions are Digital Government Transformation and Financial Regulation & Supervision. The company works with entities in Dubai, including Smart Dubai Government, the Department of Finance, the Dubai Electric & Water Authority, the Knowledge & Human Development Authority, Emirates NBD Bank and Network International.

“The dApp reduced 40 days of manual reconciliation to instant reconciliation, thereby cutting huge wastage in Dubai’s government functions,” Piekarska-Geater said.

This app is used by businesses to verify customer identities and streamline the on-boarding process in a way that meets know-your-customer (KYC) regulations. It can verify individuals as well as corporate and institutional business clients for criminal or prohibited activities in real-time through a partner sanctions and watchlists database that spans more than 240 countries.

Together with a self-sovereign identity dApp from partner company SelfKey, KYC-Chain lets users store their own certified identity details on-chain and control public access to their credentials by offering up public keys when access is needed. The dApp allows users to pay individually for 10 services, such as accredited investor checks, crypto funds screening, ID verification and document authentication. The service also lets users check client crypto wallet spending to check against known-risk indicators and comply with anti-money laundering rules.

Built on the Hyperledger Fabric business platform, DLT.sg (Distributed ledger Technologies, Singapore) includes a series of enterprise-grade blockchain dApp modules focused on supply chain and counterfeit recognition technologies; DLT.sg is built for collaborative ecommerce in large supply-chain organizations. It enables trade finance, tracks end-to-end product flow and delivers a model for unlocking inventory and freeing up cash. 

For example, SKR,sg’s SmartCode for Pharma is focused on resolving Pharma counterfeits by tracing their provenance throughout the production process. Another module, SmartFIN, is a dApp to help fund trade between multinational corporations, commodity traders and banks; it creates a permissioned online ledger through which corporations can securely interact with their financial institutions in the negotiation of trade finance, bonding & guarantees and risk mitigation.

DLT.sg’s dApps can also integrate with SAP and Microsoft software via APIs, if needed, in order to connect to legacy data sources.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Save time with efficiency-boosting Android apps

Your phone is now essentially your personal assistant — and like any aide, it needs the right set of tools to do its job effectively.

The good news? As an Android user, you’ve got no shortage of efficiency-enhancing options. Unlike other mobile platforms, Android affords you the opportunity to customize and control the core user interface to make it better suited to your needs. And while the more advanced UI-adjusting tools tend to be targeted at the power-user crowd, you don’t have to be a card-carrying geek to take advantage of what they offer.

Behold: six innovative apps that’ll empower your favorite high-tech helper and allow it to reach its full productivity potential.

Price: $2

Google is pushing Android toward a gesture-driven future — but even if you’re lucky enough to be running Android 10 already, you don’t have to limit yourself to the gestures Google gives you.

You can actually create your own custom gesture system right now with Edge Gestures. The app allows you to add all sorts of time-saving shortcuts into your device and make them work exactly the way you want, either as a supplement to Android’s own system-level gestures or as a standalone replacement.

Edge Gestures lets you create up to three gesture-sensitive hot zones on your screen — on the left, on the right, and along the bottom of the display. Realistically, you’ll probably only need to activate one of those, as each contains more than enough opportunities for custom commands via combinations of tapping, swiping, and holding movements. For instance, you could set the app to take you back to your home screen anytime you long-press anywhere in a hot zone, to open Android’s Overview section whenever you swipe up on the area, and to act as the system Back key whenever you swipe right on it.

You can create similar sorts of actions for adjusting your screen’s brightness, opening your notification or Quick Settings panel, and toggling Android’s split-screen mode. You can also enable a “pie control” option that adds a tiny translucent button onto the hot zone. Pressing and holding that button pulls up a pie-shaped semicircle of your favorite shortcuts; you can then swipe to any of them for easy on-demand access to those apps from anywhere.

Android efficiency apps - Edge Gestures JR Raphael / IDG

Edge Gestures’ “pie control” feature lets you easily access your favorite apps from anywhere.

All of this makes for a more natural and ergonomic phone-using experience, especially on a device with a larger screen (where it typically takes a fair amount of finger yoga to reach the top or bottom areas of the display). And the possibilities with this thing are practically endless — which takes us to our next efficiency-enhancing item:

Price: $2

Give your custom gestures some extra pop with Popup Widget 3 — a thoughtfully crafted app that works hand in hand with Edge Gestures to summon some impressive powers.

Created by the same developer as Edge Gestures, Popup Widget 3 lets you keep any regular Android widget at finger’s reach, no matter what you’re doing on your phone. You just assign the widget to an action — like swiping over to the right from your Edge Gesture hot zone — and then whenever you perform that action, the widget will appear as a floating box over whatever else is on your screen.

Computerworld > Android efficiency apps > Pop-up widget JR Raphael / Computerworld

With Popup Widget 3, you can always keep your inbox a single swipe away.

That means you could pull up and scroll through things like your inbox, your message list, or your personal notes simply by swiping your finger on the side of your screen — without ever having to switch apps or interrupt your workflow.

Price: free

In most desktop computing environments, you can launch any app anytime by using the always-present taskbar (or Dock). It doesn’t matter what programs are open or what you’re actively doing; there’s rarely a need to “return to your home screen” in order to scroll through your full collection of apps and open something new.

On the mobile front, it’s typically a different story. But you can change that by installing Taskbar, which brings an always-present app-launching interface onto your Android device. The bar is just a small and translucent arrow that lives in the lower-left corner of your screen. Tap it, and you’ll see a familiar all-apps button that pulls up a list of every app installed on your device — along with, if you’d like, a list of your recently used apps and/or pinned favorites.

android efficiency apps taskbar JR Raphael / IDG

Taskbar brings a desktop-like touch to your mobile device, and yet it’s barely noticeable when you aren’t actively using it.

You can even customize the main app list to omit certain apps or to prioritize specific apps that you want to appear before any others. And a bonus: Taskbar works on Chrome OS, too, giving you an interesting additional option for accessing Android apps on your Chromebook.

Price: free with limited phrases or $3.50 for unlimited phrases and advanced phrase lists

Tired of typing the same stuff over and over? (Who isn’t?) Texpand and its even more capable Texpand Plus sibling can save you time by storing your most commonly used expressions — your mailing address, phone number, stock responses to emails and messages, or even variables like the current date — and then letting you pull them up and insert them into text fields via your own custom macros.

You might set *a to represent your address, for instance, and *d to represent the current date. Anytime you type those macros into a text field, a box will pop up with the associated phrase you set. All you have to do is tap it to insert the words — or if you’d rather skip the confirmation and just have your text fill in automatically, you can set Texpand to do that, too.

With Texpand Plus, you can even create lists of phrases that get triggered by certain macros and then appear for your field-inserting selection.

Android efficiency apps - Texpand JR Raphael / IDG

Texpand can insert phrases or let you pick from lists of phrases whenever you type a specific macro.

There’s just one asterisk: Texpand is incompatible with a handful of apps — which unfortunately includes Gmail, Google Docs, and Chrome. The developer came up with a reasonable workaround for those scenarios, though: You can keep Texpand available in your notification panel and then drag and drop your phrases directly into apps where the macros won’t work.

Either way, it’s a significant upgrade to your mobile typing experience.

Price: free with $7 in-app upgrade for advanced features

No matter how much you may supplement it, your smartphone’s home screen invariably serves as a starting point for your mobile productivity needs — and a simple step up from your device’s default setup can make it much more useful and efficient.

The key is to employ something called a custom launcher, which takes over the entire home screen environment and replaces it with a more versatile and/or powerful alternative. You can find launchers for practically every style and purpose on Android, but one that’s long stood out to me is an inventive little creation called Action Launcher.

Action Launcher has oodles of interesting features and opportunities for customization. One such example: It allows you to store on-demand widgets in every home screen icon, which helps you packs a lot of functionality into a single space without creating any clutter. You just swipe upward on an icon to open its widget, effectively letting you peek inside the app and gain access to its key elements right then and there.

android efficiency apps action launcher JR Rapahel / IDG

Action Launcher lets you swipe up on an app’s icon to access its widget, keeping your home screen uncluttered and yet packed with valuable functionality.

Another helpful feature lets you customize your home screen’s long-press menu to make it more practical for your own personal needs. You might give the menu a direct shortcut to your device’s battery stats, for instance, or a one-touch option for browsing your phone’s storage. Functions that are typically several steps away can thus be at your fingertips — and you can take care of most basic productivity tasks right from your home screen, without having to waste time poking around.

Price: free with $2 in-app upgrade for custom themes

Last but not least, give your standard system app drawer an upgrade with LaunchBoard, a handy app that makes it speedy as can be to find any app you need from your home screen — regardless of what sort of setup you’re using.

The way LaunchBoard works is simple: Once you place its widget on your home screen, you’ll see a special keyboard that remains open and ready for fast-finding action. When you want to open an app, all you do is tap its first letter within that keyboard. In a split second, LaunchBoard will pull up a list of all apps that begin with that letter — no searching or scrolling required.

android efficiency apps launchboard JR Raphael / IDG

Tap a letter in LaunchBoard’s widget-based keyboard, and you’ll be able to get to the app you want without any searching or scrolling.

You can set frequently used apps as favorites, which makes them appear at the start of the results whenever their letter is pressed. You can also always access your favorites by tapping a special heart icon within the LaunchBoard keyboard — and you can pull up a list of recently used apps by tapping a clock icon in that same area.

And here’s where things get especially interesting: In addition to serving as, well, a launchboard for your apps, LaunchBoard can act as an expedited way to find and get in touch with any of your contacts. Once you activate the appropriate option within LaunchBoard’s settings, its keyboard will pull up contacts by letter with the speed of lightning (either showing them alongside your apps or instead of your apps, depending on your preference). And a single tap of any contact can either initiate a call or a text; all it takes is a toggle of a setting to change your preferred behavior.

Use LaunchBoard in conjunction with some of the other tools in this collection, and what you need will always be nearby and easy to manage — no matter what you might be doing on your device at any given moment. And that, dear readers, is what efficiency is all about.

This article was originally published in July 2017 and most recently updated in December 2019.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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14 Microsoft Teams apps to help you work smarter

When it comes to adding apps to collaboration software, Slack tends to get most of the attention. Yet Microsoft Teams, which now has a larger number of active daily users than Slack, offers dozens of third-party tools that make it easier to get work done without leaving the Teams interface. Integrations can help you brainstorm, set up meetings and track projects, among other tasks. 

[ In case you missed it: 4 tips for picking the right collaboration suite and How to combine project management and collaboration ]

Most apps add a new tab that appears at the top of the Teams interface for controlling the app’s features. Other integrations include a bot, which allows you to type commands, for example to find a file or track a project’s status. App’s can also trigger notifications, like when a file you’re sharing has been updated, within the channel.

Other examples: You can type a simple command in a channel that tells a bot to create a new task in a project management app, like Wrike or Trello. In addition, you could click on a tab to view pull up a recently edited Photoshop file from Adobe Creative Cloud. Or you can have notifications in a channel update you automatically with website metrics, like pageviews and daily users. 

Here are some of the most useful integrations for enterprise users who need to collaborate with their coworkers in Teams.

Add apps

To add an app in Teams, look near the bottom of the left-hand navigation pane. Select “Apps” and a directory opens showing you all the available apps, sorted by category.

When it comes to adding apps to collaboration software, Slack tends to get most of the attention. Yet Microsoft Teams, which now has a larger number of active daily users than Slack, offers dozens of third-party tools that make it easier to get work done without leaving the Teams interface. Integrations can help you brainstorm, set up meetings and track projects, among other tasks. 

[ In case you missed it: 4 tips for picking the right collaboration suite and How to combine project management and collaboration ]

Most apps add a new tab that appears at the top of the Teams interface for controlling the app’s features. Other integrations include a bot, which allows you to type commands, for example to find a file or track a project’s status. App’s can also trigger notifications, like when a file you’re sharing has been updated, within the channel.

Other examples: You can type a simple command in a channel that tells a bot to create a new task in a project management app, like Wrike or Trello. In addition, you could click on a tab to view pull up a recently edited Photoshop file from Adobe Creative Cloud. Or you can have notifications in a channel update you automatically with website metrics, like pageviews and daily users. 

Here are some of the most useful integrations for enterprise users who need to collaborate with their coworkers in Teams.

[ Related: 7 top Slack alternatives for 2019 ]

Add apps

To add an app in Teams, look near the bottom of the left-hand navigation pane. Select “Apps” and a directory opens showing you all the available apps, sorted by category. When you click an app, a description appears, detailing the features of the app within Teams. 

[ Related: Microsoft Teams: Slack’s big rival explained ]

It’s worth clicking the “Privacy and Permissions” link to see what the app will receive once you click “Add” to integrate the app in Teams. You may want to run any privacy concerns by your system administrator, if you have one. Some permissions, like whether you’re able to add apps at all — or which ones — may already be set by your admin. In some cases the apps are given permission that may give your IT department pause. For example, once you sign in, some bots are able to take actions on your behalf.

[ Related: 7 top Slack alternatives for 2019 ]

Keep in mind that these third-party apps require you to set up an account, so if you don’t already have one, you’ll be prompted to sign up, or log in, when you add them to Teams.

Plan ahead with Trello, Wrike and Asana

Cloud-based project management services, like Trello, Wrike and Asana, can help workgroups set deadlines, assigns tasks and automatically update stakeholders on the project’s status. Frequently, workplace chat sparks new ideas and integrating a dedicated app to assign tasks and deadlines right in Teams can speed things up, while keeping discussion in one central location.

Trello and Asana both use Kanban boards, which organize tasks by whether they’re being planned, in progress, or complete. Wrike calls them cards, which you can view within Teams, or if you want to view multiple projects and deadlines at once, you can view them as a Gannt chart without leaving Teams.

Check traffic with Google Analytics

The Google Analytics app can post to your channel automatically with high-level traffic reports from websites and mobile apps. For example, you can automatically have the app post to your channel with a digest of metrics like pageviews, new users and how many pages they viewed in a session. If you routinely report these numbers, for example at a daily meeting, instead of having someone view and report the numbers for your site, you can set them to automatically appear daily, weekly or monthly in your channel. 

Be social with Twitter and Yammer

Twitter’s app provides a way to track your organization’s social media mentions, by reporting them as they happen in your channel, when you add the app to Teams. You can choose to be notified when your handle is tweeted, or a hashtag you choose, like an area of interest in your industry.

For internal updates, you can add a tab for Yammer, which acts as a social media presence within an organization, with status updates, links, photos and video. Once the app is added, you can share Yammer posts in a channel, or view see posts and topic threads in a tab. 

Kick off a meeting with Webex and Zoom

If your workgroup uses video meetings outside of Office 365, for example, with Webex Meetings or Zoom, you can schedule and join meetings from a tab in Teams. In Zoom, for example, you can type a command “start [topic]” to begin a new meeting (and let everybody know what it’s about.) In Webex Meetings, you can click the app’s tab and see all your upcoming meetings, as well as people you frequently meet with so you can quickly add them, or set up a meeting with everybody in your channel.

For offices that adopt the agile methodology — and it may be useful even if you don’t — the Scrumgenius app automates routine daily check ins with a team. A bot asks each channel member what they’re working on, what they’ve completed and if they’re running into hangups that are keeping them from completing projects (you can also customize the questions). Then a bot updates the channel or sends the updates to an email address.

Release the code: GitHub, Jira Cloud and Azure Devops

If your organization builds software, for internal operations or for public release, there are several apps you can add to Teams for creating and tracking new code and changes, and track bug reports. Teams offers support for most of the popular, cloud-based services including GitHub, Jira Cloud, and Azure DevOps. Each of these apps add a tab in Teams, so you can see the status of software under development. The GitHub app, for example, lets you view new code requests or get notifications in a channel when changes to projects you’re following are modified.

All three apps integrate bots so you can check and modify a project’s status by typing a command in a channel. For example, when a new bug is reported in Jira, you can type a keyword to assign the issue to a team member. There are also keyword commands to use the bot for searching for issues, watching an open issue, or “voting” on an issue to prioritize how quickly a bug needs to be fixed.

Get creative with Adoble Create Cloud and Mural

Adobe’s Creative Cloud app lets you share files made in that design suite with coworkers in Teams, and provide feedback in channels. You can also receive notifications when comments are made about files you’re collaborating on. When you click the Creative Cloud icon at the bottom of a Teams message, your most recent Adobe files appear for you to select and share. 

If you use whiteboards with your team, the Mural app helps make the process faster with premade design elements. The app lets your coworkers simultaneously edit a whiteboard in a Teams channel, adding templates and icons that should make collaborative planning simpler, especially for the artistically challenged. You can start with icons, like sticky notes and basic flow-chart shapes, or drag and drop complex templates for planning projects, as well as calendars for prioritizing tasks over a week or more. 





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Review: 4 business card scanning apps for Android and iOS

Throughout workdays, meetings and industry events, you probably collect a lot of business cards. But if you’re like many business professionals, you lack the time or motivation to type the information on them into your contacts. Why not let a business card scanning app can do the work for you?

Using such an app, you snap a photo of a business card with your phone’s camera. The app performs optical character recognition (OCR) on the photo to extract the information printed on the card and categorizes that info into fields (name, job title, phone number, email address, etc.). Some apps’ OCR software can even recognize languages other than English — a plus for today’s global business environment. These results can be added to your phone’s contacts app with a quick tap.

Additionally, these apps typically offer cloud storage (either their own or via a third-party service like iCloud or Google Drive) so you can access the contact data from anywhere. And many allow you to export the data as a vCard email attachment, to a CSV file, or even to CRM platforms like Salesforce, though you may have to pay for a premium account to do so.

It’s impossible for these apps to produce perfect results every time. At least occasionally, you’ll need to make edits, such as correcting the spelling of a business or a person’s name. How often you have to make corrections on the scanned results from any of these apps depends partly on how capable its OCR software is.

Another factor affecting the results is image quality. The camera tool in many of these apps automatically enhances the image of a scanned business card (e.g., brightening it and straightening its alignment) to help produce better scan results through its OCR. Nevertheless, you should snap photos of the business cards in a well-lit setting.

We tested four business card scanning apps with versions for both Android and iOS. They are among the most downloaded and highly rated in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. With them, we scanned a variety of nine business cards: some with minimalist designs, some with more elaborate designs, and some with languages on them other than English (German, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish).

Which app was easiest to use? Which had the best features? And which produced accurate results the most frequently? Read on to find out.

ABBYY Business Card Reader

ABBYY can recognize 25 languages. As you target your phone’s camera at the card you want scanned, ABBYY’s camera tool shows a transparent rectangle overlay over the card. When the rectangle locks its positioning right over the card, the app automatically snaps a photo. (You can turn this off so that you snap the photo yourself by tapping a button.)

biz card scanning apps 01 abbyy IDG

ABBYY shows a transparent rectangle over the business card you’re scanning to help you position it. (Click image to enlarge it.)

In the app’s card editor, contact information that was extracted from the card is organized into fields that you can scroll through. Text in fields that ABBYY thinks may be errors is colored in red. You tap a field to edit it. When you do this, a close-up of the corresponding text in the photo of the business card is displayed along the top of the screen.

biz card scanning apps 02b abbyy IDG

Using ABBYY’s text editor. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Tiles with thumbnails of your scanned cards are placed on the app’s main screen. From here, you can search the fields of all your cards through a search box.

If you want to store your scanned data in the cloud for easy access from any device, you need to sign up for a free ABBYY Cloud account. Contact info from scanned cards can also be exported as a VCF file (a.k.a. vCard format), and you can send an email with your own vCard attached with a few quick taps.

The free version of ABBYY is ad-supported and lets you scan and save information for up to 10 business cards only. Upgrading to a Premium account gives you unlimited card scanning, automatic backup, no ads, and the ability to export your data to Microsoft Excel (in CSV format) or Salesforce CRM. You can alternatively purchase options such as ad removal or CSV export à la carte.

Test scan results

ABBYY’s OCR software generally did a good job scanning each of the nine business cards, only misreading a few characters from the batch. The photo of one of the English business cards turned out to be slightly out of focus (a “5” in an office address was incorrectly recorded by the app as an “S”), yet ABBYY managed to transcribe the rest of the card correctly.

Pricing

Trial version free for Android or iOS; in-app purchases from $3 for additional features; Pro version for Android $60; Premium subscription for iOS $8/month, $30/year or $60/lifetime; volume licensing available.

CamCard

CamCard requires that you register for a free user account in order to use it. Alternatively, you can log in with your Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google account. The app recognizes 17 languages.

The camera tool in CamCard displays a rectangle in its viewfinder. Position your camera to frame this rectangle around a business card, then tap a button to snap a photo.

biz card scanning apps 03 camcard IDG

Like ABBYY, CamCard provides a rectangle overlay to help position the card. (Click image to enlarge it.)

If you have more than one card to scan, CamCard has a convenient option that lets you snap photos of every one of them first. After you’ve finished taking photos of all of them, CamCard then proceeds to scan them for their contact info one by one.

This app’s card editor displays the photo of a scanned card at the top of the screen. Contact information that was extracted from the card is placed below throughout a scrollable list of fields.

biz card scanning apps 04 camcard IDG

Editing contact information in CamCard. (Click image to enlarge it.)

When you tap a field box to edit it, the photo of the business card zooms in on the corresponding information that’s on it. (For example, when you edit a phone number, CamCard zooms in on that number in the photo of the card.) This zoom-in effect animates very smoothly.

Like ABBYY, CamCard displays tiles with thumbnails of your scanned cards on the main screen. You can search the fields of your cards from here via a search box.

Your contacts are stored both on your phone and in the cloud for access from any device, and you can create your own e-card and exchange it with other CamCard users, skipping paper cards altogether.

You can scan up to 500 cards with the free version of CamCard. With a premium account you get unlimited scans, no ads, and the ability to export contact info from your scanned cards to Salesforce, Google Contacts, or Outlook. Business plans include shared contacts, task assignments, integration with other CRMs, and other admin tools.

Test scan results

For some reason, CamCard didn’t acknowledge the city, state and ZIP code that were clearly printed on one business card, but it recognized and transcribed the full address on another card. Its OCR made some mistakes extracting from the German business card, and it didn’t recognize several Simplified Chinese characters. But for the other cards, its accuracy was close to ABBYY’s.

Pricing

Basic version free for Android or iOS; premium subscription $4.50/month or $47/year; team and business plans available.

ScanBizCards

ScanBizCards supports 23 languages, but not Simplified Chinese. The camera tool lacks a targeting graphic in its viewfinder to indicate if your business card is within focus or frame. You just aim and tap to snap a photo. Like CamCard, it does offer a convenient batch-scanning option.

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There’s no positioning rectangle when you photograph a card in ScanBizCards. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The card editor for ScanBizCards shows the photo of a scanned card along the top of the screen. Information extracted from the card is listed below, organized into fields that you can scroll through. Unlike ABBYY and CamCard, ScanBizCards doesn’t show the source area on the card photo in close-up when you tap a field to edit it.

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Editing contact info in ScanBizCards. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Also unlike ABBYY and CamCard, ScanBizCars doesn’t show tiles with thumbnails of scanned cards on its main screen for convenient access. You have to tap to open a screen that shows folders containing your cards. Next, you tap one of these folders to see thumbnails of the scanned cards inside it, and then finally you can tap a thumbnail to open a card.

You can search the fields of your cards through a search box that’s on the app’s main screen. There’s also a search box on the screen that displays all your card folders, and on any screen showing thumbnails of your cards inside a folder.

You can connect your Google Drive or iCloud account for online storage and access, or export a card’s contact information as a vCard or (on a limited basis) to your Salesforce, SugarCRM, or Evernote account. Unlimited CRM exports and admin tools are available with team and enterprise accounts.

Test scan results

Compared to the other three apps we tested, ScanBizCards made the most mistakes. It failed to transcribe correctly or recognize addresses and phone numbers on three of the business cards. In particular, its OCR struggled with email addresses and website URLs.

Pricing

Lite version free for Android or iOS; Pro version $1 for Android or iOS; team and enterprise plans available.

Wantedly People

As with CamCard, you have to register for a free user account (or sign in with your Facebook or Google account) in order to use Wantedly People. The app’s website says it recognizes more than 50 languages.

This app is designed to let you scan several business cards at once. You can take a single photo of up to 10 cards, and from that, Wantedly People extracts contact info from each one. (See the results below for how successful it was in our tests.)

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You can scan multiple cards at the same time with Wantedly People. (Click image to enlarge it.)

In its camera tool, when a business card is within focus of your phone’s camera, a pulsating circle appears in the viewfinder.  When you aim the camera at more than one card, a targeting circle appears over each card. Then you can tap a button to snap a photo.

Scanned business cards are stored in the Contacts section of the app as tiles. From this screen, you can search your cards via a search box.

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Editing contact info in Wantedly. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Unlike ABBYY, CamCards and ScanBizCards, Wantedly People doesn’t have a wide range of fields for contact info. It identifies only the most basic details on a business card: the contact’s name, phone numbers, fax, email, and physical address.

You can export contact info extracted from a business card as a vCard and store your contacts online with your Wantedly People account. From the Wantedly People site, you can download your contacts as a CSV file, but the service doesn’t integrate with Salesforce or other CRM tools.

Note that much of the Wantedly Site is in Japanese, but there is an English-language help center.

Test scan results

Wantedly People ignores any contact info (such as website URLs) for which it doesn’t have fields. Otherwise, its results were similar in accuracy to ABBYY’s and CamCard’s. And it was the best at handling the three non-English cards, transcribing the German, Simplified Chinese and Spanish characters and contact info on them with the fewest mistakes.

The multiple-card scan feature didn’t work well in our tests. From a photo of two cards that we snapped, the OCR results were worse compared to snapping photos of each card separately. In a photo of four cards and another of ten together, the errors increased exponentially.

The problem is that the phone’s camera may not be able to snap a photo of several business cards where each one is in focus. And the more cards you want to snap together in one photo, the more difficult it can be to get targeting circles to appear over each one in the viewfinder. How well this feature works could depend on how advanced your phone’s camera lens is.

Pricing

Free for Android and iOS.

Conclusions

ABBYY and CamCard shared similar accuracy in our tests, with a slight advantage going to ABBYY. CamCard’s free option is the one to look at if you only need to scan business cards occasionally and don’t need to export them. With just 10 scans offered before you have to pay up, the free version of ABBYY is only useful for evaluation purposes. (That said, you can purchase 50 scans with ABBYY for $4.) CamCard also has the better card editor, and its “batch photo” feature is convenient.

If you need to scan a lot of cards or export them to a CRM tool, you’ll need to shell out for a premium version of one of these apps. At $30 per year or $60 lifetime, ABBYY offers better value than CamCard’s $47-per-year subscription.

If a business card you want to scan isn’t in English and you don’t care about saving website URLs, give Wantedly People a try. Just don’t expect its ability to scan more than one business card in a photo to work as accurately as it does with a photo of a single card.

This article was originally published in August 2014 and most recently updated n November 2019.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Salesforce to expand Einstein Voice Skills so users can create custom voice apps

Salesforce plans to expand its Einstein Voice Assistant capabilities, enabling customers to create their own custom “skills” as it seeks to broaden the appeal of voice interfaces in the workplace. 

The company unveiled Einstein at last year’s Dreamforce conference, promising to enable sales staff to update customer records on its CRM platform using voice commands.

Its efforts are part of a wider push from numerous tech firms to popularize conversational voice interfaces for business apps, including Amazon’s Alexa for Business, Microsoft’s Cortana and Oracle’s Digital Assistant. Analyst firm Gartner forecast that 25% of digital workers will interact with virtual assistants on a daily basis within two years. 

On Tuesday at this year’s Dreamforce, Salesforce unveiled a handful of voice-related updates. 

With Einstein Voice Skills, developers can create voice-powered apps for Salesforce’s Customer 360 Platform, expanding the range of potential uses, the company said. The skills could, for instance, allow field technicians to check on a service history while driving to their next customer, the company said.

“Voice is a huge shift for the industry and will be as impactful in businesses as it’s been in our homes,” said Bret Taylor, president and chief product officer at Salesforce, in a statement. “With Einstein, Salesforce is bringing the power of voice to every business, giving everyone an intelligent, trusted guide at work.” 

While AI-based voice technology has potential, it is still nascent in terms of its use in enterprise applications, said Nicholas McQuire, vice president for enterprise research at CCS Insight.

“Obviously, voice is becoming a trend in mobile as the next phase of the phone and application interface. But it is still going to take some time for business professionals to take hold of this technology, and for voice to be the dominant modality of interaction with applications,” said McQuire.

Salesforce is not in a rush to bring its voice assistant, which has been in a private pilot since the summer, to market. Although Einstein Voice Assistant and Einstein Voice Skills will be available in beta in February, a full rollout is not planned until 2021.

McQuire said that the biggest opportunity for Salesforce with conversational interfaces, in the short term, lies in customer-facing voice interactions. That’s an area the company focused on with the announcement of Einstein Voice Bots at last year’s Dreamforce event. Einstein Voice Bots will enable developers to build corporate branded bots that link to Salesforce CRM and can be accessed via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

“When it comes to the customer and consumer applications, it is a different ball game,” said McQuire. “From a customer perspective, there is an increasing drive to interact with brands and with services using different modalities. …Voice is one that we are starting to see more and more.

“Salesforce will probably see the maturity curve of voice starting with the customer first, and over the next three to five years we will see it creep in more and more to the enterprise,” he said.

At Dreamforce, Salesforce also unveiled the Einstein Call Coaching feature for its Sales Cloud. It lets managers quickly see key phrases in sales call transcripts, highlighting trends in conversation data such as an increase in mentions of a rival company. It can also identify best practices around objection handling and pricing discussions that can be used to give sales reps personalized training. 

That feature is currently being piloted and will be available in June 2020.

Salesforce also announced that it has integrated telephony into its Service Cloud console with the introduction of Service Cloud Voice. It’s designed to offer users access to AI capabilities such as real-time transcriptions with AI-generated suggested actions that help call center staffers resolve issues faster. 

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.



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New Google Translate Tricks, Android Apps on Windows, Lower Your Rent

We take a look at a bunch of new features on popular services, the Disney+ Europe launch, Android apps on Windows, lowering your rent, how to scan old photos, print your own board games, and more…

Really Useful Podcast Season 4 Episode 12 Shownotes

This week’s Really Useful Podcast features Christian Cawley and Megan Ellis discussing:

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Don’t miss next week’s Black Friday special!



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Salesforce announces new iOS enterprise apps

One year since Apple and Salesforce joined forces to make it easier to use the CRM platform with iOS, the two companies have announced new apps and a new SDK.

Swift, Siri, SDK and more

With around 80% of Fortune 500 companies making use of Salesforce, the move to introduce better iOS support on the CRM platform was pretty much inevitable as enterprise adoption of iOS hit critical mass.

Last week’s JNUC 2019 was a great illustration of just how far Apple has come in the sector, with some of the biggest names in enterprise IT now using iOS, and Apple tech used at every single Fortune 500 firm.

These days, Apple support is an HR issue: You can’t attract new staff if you don’t support the platforms, and you certainly won’t retain them. 

When it comes to Salesforce, hundreds of companies across the globe have used its tools to bring iOS support, including The Home Depot, P&G and University of San Diego.

The importance of the partnership is also reflected in news that Apple CEO, Tim Cook, will join Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff to speak at Dreamforce 2019 on November 19 at 1.30pm PT.

So, what’s happening?

What’s new is that Salesforce has redesigned its Salesforce Mobile app and has also introduced the first-ever Trailhead GO learning app for iOS and iPadOS.

It has also introduced a Salesforce Mobile SDK developers can use in order to build and deploy native apps for iPhone and iPad on the Salesforce Platform.

What Apple is saying

“Working together, Apple and Salesforce have helped hundreds of businesses and millions of developers transform the way they work,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s VP Product Marketing for Apps, Markets and Services in a press release.

“With brand new Salesforce Mobile apps exclusive to iOS and iPadOS, and an enhanced SDK that supports the latest advancements in Swift, Apple together with Salesforce offers customers strong privacy, powerful multitasking and the best user experience in business on iPhone and iPad.”

What’s Salesforce saying?

“With Salesforce Mobile, Salesforce and Apple are empowering sales, service and marketing professionals on the go to deliver game-changing customer experiences, powered by AI,” said Bret Taylor, Chief Product Officer, Salesforce in a press release. “And with Trailhead GO, millions more learners can now skill up for free, anytime and anywhere, to learn in-demand skills and fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

What’s new in the Salesforce Mobile App?

Along with a better UI, the now available Salesforce Mobile App now includes an AI called Einstein.

This AI tries to identify patterns, predict outcomes, provide guidance and to support increasingly automated workflows based on the data generated by the app.

The idea is that the AI inside the Salesforce Mobile App can make teams more productive while supporting provision of increasingly personalized customer relationships.

The app also offers support for unique iOS features, including Siri shortcuts and Face ID, so tasks, notes and CRM updates can all be committed by voice alone.

Bridging the training gap

Salesforce has also improved its training offer for users with the introduction of its iOS-only Trailhead GO app, which provides access to Salesforce’s free online learning platform used by millions of workers worldwide.

The app provides anytime access to over 700 training modules including Apple-specific items such as Get Started with iOS App Development.

The app was built on Swift using Salesforce’s Mobile SDK and supports Handoff, Split View and Picture-in-picture modes. You should be able to find it in your local app store.

Developers, developers, developers

Perhaps the most important news is the introduction of an enhanced set of developer tools in the form of the Swift-optimized Mobile SDK.

This adds support for iOS 13, including Swift UI and Package Manager, for easier compiling and distribution of code.

Salesforce claims the SDK will enable over six million developers working with its platform to build and deploy apps for Apple’s mobile devices.

The company hasn’t said if it plans to use Catalyst to unify its Apple apps around iPad apps exported to the Mac, but with Office 365 (and Outlook) available on iOS the temptation must be there. Outlook and Salesforce are close companions, after all.

The new Salesforce Mobile SDK 8.0 with support for Dark Mode and Swift UI is expected to be available later this year, with additional features optimized foriPadOS expected to arrive in a 2020 release.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.





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