Like anyone who’s been on the net for more than a few years, I’d learned to loathe the Plaxo e-mails that inevitably resulted when a colleague uploaded their Outlook contacts to Plaxo. The concept behind Plaxo was always wonderful: shift the burden of keeping your addressbook to the people in your addressbook; when their info changes, they update their contact info, and that update flows through to your addressbook. In reality, things were a bit messier: your colleague would sign up for Plaxo, then Plaxo would send out a mass update to every one of their contacts requesting an update. In a good week, you could get more than a dozen of these. What was worse, most of the people causing this quasi-spam had no idea they were doing it.
So imagine my surprise when I swung by plaxo.com last week and was stunned to find a genuinely useful service. My original need was to simply de-dupe my contacts folder; with nearly 2000 contacts (about 15% of which were dupes and/or out-of-date), I had no interest in manually sorting and updating the contacts. After a few minutes searching for a good answer, I saw a couple blog write-ups about Plaxo. I put my long-ago annoyance aside, and man, am I ever glad I did.
First off, Plaxo makes it easy to get your contacts into the system; since I’ve been a Gmail user for the last 6 months or so, that’s where my most recent, polluted store of contacts was. An export from Gmail and an upload to Plaxo, and I was good to go. (Yes, Plaxo has Gmail sync, but I’m using Gmail behind the firewall at Google… so it was a two-step process for me. Those of you at gmail.com can have Plaxo import your contacts directly.) Next up is Plaxo’s de-duper, part of their premium suite ($50/year), but available for free for 30 days. It’s definitely worth it – it correctly identified the 300 dupes in my contacts list, and gave me a step-by-step wizard to merge the dupes. I have a few minor quibbles with the way they merge: it’s a winner-take-all approach (with one version of the contact effectively nuking the other; if both have some data that’s valid, you have to manually merge them). A better approach would be to let you pick the fields from each contact card that you want to keep – like I said, it’s minor, but it would’ve saved me even more time/data entry if they’d given me more granular control.
With that done, Plaxo then ‘connected’ my addressbook to their userbase (15m and growing); contact info from anyone whose info was more current than mine had their info updated in my addressbook. End result, I not only had removed all the dupes from my contacts folder, I also had updated contact info from another 10% of my contacts. Others whose updates I want, I can either have Plaxo selectively send an update request (something that, given my prior experience on the receiving end of those updates, I’ll use judiciously if at all), or simply update the contact in Outlook, on the Blackberry, or at Plaxo.com directly.
Getting the contacts onto my Blackberry was a little circuitous, but that’s not really Plaxo’s fault. I installed Plaxo’s Outlook sync, and then installed Blackberry’s desktop manager to sync the Blackberry with Outlook. I don’t use Outlook for anything else, and would prefer to have Plaxo talk directly to Blackberry (wireless sync would be ideal – and something I’d pay for – but just a connector between Blackberry and Plaxo on the client side would be fine too).
One recommendation I’ve already made to Plaxo: work with Anagram. Anagram is one of those ideal pieces of tiny software that make life so much easier. When you see a block of text that is someone’s contact info (like their e-mail sig); you just copy it to your clipboard. Anagram parses the block of text into the appropriate contact fields, and saves the contact info. I have a license for Anagram, so I suppose I’ll just use the Outlook connector – but hooking Anagram up with Plaxo would be killer.
A usability tweak – Plaxo gives you the ability to flag “old” e-mail addresses that correspondents might have in their address books; Plaxo will notify them that the e-mail address is no longer valid and offer up your updated contact info. Not realizing the significance of this feature, I added my ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ as an ‘old’ address… which triggered a notification to a fair number of my contacts that the rklau.com address was no longer valid. Some confusion ensued, as people wondered what was going on… but it’s mostly my fault for not realizing what ‘old’ address really meant. (Suggestion for Plaxo: a pop-up window indicating that a notification will be sent to Plaxo users instructing them that this e-mail address is no longer valid would be a helpful way to avoid others repeating this mistake.)
Given how important accurate contact info is to anyone – personal or professional – you’d think other companies would be trying to solve this problem. (I’m not aware of others trying to do this; if I’ve missed them, let me know.) Plaxo is one of those eminently useful services that gets better as more people use it. Yes, I (and many others) found their abundance of e-mails rather frustrating back in the day. But I have to hand it to them – the service as it exists today (particularly version 3.0, which is available in preview mode) is remarkably comprehensive and wildly useful.
A final observation – in the past few days, I’ve sent in a handful of recommendations and asked for support. Each time I’ve received a prompt reply, and helpful feedback. I’m impressed! Once I’m settled in in Mountain View next month, I’ll have to swing by and say hi – they’re next door to a couple of our buildings. :)