Sunday, March 23, 2008

Yoo Hoo! Where are You?

"Howcome you have so many friends?" asks my 9-year-old daughter, Maya.
"Like who?" I ask, "I don't have that many friends."
"I'll prove it," she declares, picking up my phone and scrolling down, "Adrienne, Alik, Allan, Alon, Alon, Alon, Alona, Amir... "

"Wait, read slower." We went down the list for a while and found it is composed of approximately 20% obsolete contacts, 10% semi-obsolete (I could imagine needing them some day), 50% business or community (school, synagogue, etc.), 8% friends I speak to occasionally, 2% friends I could call and tell my troubles to without a pretense for the call. Considering the number of contacts I have, that is a good number of friends, btw.

Speaking of troubles, the trouble is, my contacts are totally out of control. So are yours, I guarantee. How often do you look at your cell phone to find the number before calling from a land line? Look up someone's e-mail signature to find their number? Become frustrated when their sig doesn't include it? Google someone you actually know to find their e-mail? Cut-and-paste an e-mail address to/from Gmail to Outlook? From Facebook to Gmail? Download a LinkedIn vcard? Get email from someone you have known for years asking for your phone number?

More often than you care to admit? Me too. I remember the days when every, I mean, every, one of my contacts was found in my computer address book. Sheesh, I remember the days when every one of my contacts was in a dead-tree address book, but I didn't know that many people back then.

Or didn't I? How much of our perception of who we know has changed, as a result of technology, or just as a result of getting older?

Once upon a time, I went to an event, and I met people, and that was nice. Now, I go to an event, I meet people, and then I friend them online. Now I can get some information about them, since heaven knows I won't remember where I met them later on down the line. I can't wait until someone figures out that I want to tag them, too. If I had anonymous tags (or trusted any of those networks to keep them anonymous), I would use tags like "overpriced", "SOB", and "sponge-worthy" as well as tags like "attorney", "friend of Jane", and "met at VON".

That would be cool, but it wouldn't solve my fundamental problem, which is that my contacts are spread out over bunches of apps, formats, networks, and devices. Furthermore, most people have a preferred contact methodology. Some people like SMS, some e-mail, some IM, etc. A growing number of people rely on caller-ID and expect you to return a call even when they don't leave a message. My brain knows which of my contacts to find in which of my address lists, and the preferred contact preferences for each, but that information isn't stored anywhere other than my brain, which also stores the information on whose turn it is too call whom.

What we've got here is a huge mess. There are two organizations who address (groan) the problem, while the other organizations are busy trying to lock you in. The two organizations are Microsoft and Plaxo.

Despite whatever else it may have done oddly, Microsoft Outlook has always gotten this right. It is fairly easy to import contacts from almost any other device or format, whether it is a scanned business card, a list of comma-separated-values, or the address book from your telephone. The main limitation is that most synchronization programs on mobile devices seem to lose a bit of data each time you synchronize. So Outlook almost has it down perfect. Granted, everyone felt the need to accomodate Microsoft standards, but at least there are standards to adhere to. Furthermore, Outlook allows you to export into a wide range of formats that can be imported elsewhere.

Plaxo has taken this a step further, and allows you to align your addresses with other people's address books. That is, if you and I are in the Plaxo network, and you update your phone number, my Plaxo account will show that updated phone number. As far as I am concerned, that is the ultimate clincher feature. Plaxo Premium (which costs significantly less than Microsoft Outlook) synchronizes with a good chunk of the social networks and on-line services.

So what have I ended up doing? I export all of my different phone books into Outlook, then I export my Outlook into CSV, and then I import it into Plaxo. If I join as a premium member (free for the first few weeks), I can coordinate the duplicates I have in my address books, and I have lots.

Unfortunately, to use Plaxo, I now have to be online, which somewhat defeats the point of having telephony. If' I'm online, I might as well Skype you. Oh, wait. My Skype addresses. Dang.

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