The number of web-based personalization services keeps growing to the point that soon there will be at least one for every web user on the planet. Many of these sites don't offer much in the way of added value beyond being a customized entry page with some targeted ads.
I've been interested in these sites for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted an easy way to store my electronic contact information off-site. Should anything happen to my office, I would be secure in knowing that this information is safe and automatically backed up. Second, I travel a lot and having access to my contacts from the web is handy, not to mention a lifesaver when I have to track down someone when on the road.
I recently upgraded my office desktop and began using Microsoft's Outlook 2000 as my main email and contact manager. I had been using it on my home PC for quite some time and come to like its contact manager for keeping track of family and friends. The integration between addresses and email programs in Outlook is better than what I had been using before with Lotus Approach and Eudora. I liked Approach, though, because it runs on top of a .DBF file format and can be exported to almost anything with a little bit of work. Approach is easier to setup and maintain than Access and when I looked around several years ago, it had more functionality than Filemaker Pro.
But finding the right web contact management service and getting it setup with Outlook isn't easy. The problem is in evaluating the many web sites that offer free space to store your contacts. With most of them, you have to type in the information one screen at a time. Some, such as Lycos' MailCity and Netscape's NetCenter, offer limited data import features, but you have to first take the information in Outlook and save it as a comma-separated file. That isn't something I wanted to do on a regular basis. I wanted to have true synchronization between my local Outlook file and the web address book happen as easily as pushing a button -- I subscribe to the school that if backups are easy, they will happen more often.
There are two technologies in current use to synchronize contact information: Starfish Software's TrueSync and Puma Technologies' IntelliSync. You can't buy either of them directly -- they are incorporated into various web sites and devices. TrueSync is used by Yahoo and Excite, while IntelliSync is used by PlanetAll and Visto. TrueSync has the best controls and the most flexibility of how contact information is manipulated, IntelliSync has fewer features but is easier and more reliable to use. There are other web-based services that offer synchronization but these four are the leading contenders and seem to have the most active development.
Synchronization sounds simple but is actually very sophisticated. You need to understand which contact record is more recent, how to resolve conflicts (what if I enter a new email ID for Jenny Jones in Outlook and update her phone number on the web), how this information is stored in both your local and web service (is "Jenny Jones" the same person as "Jones, Jenny"), and whether you want it to be two-way or one-way. You should also understand how you work: whether you always update your contacts on your local PC or on both your PC and the web. Adding to the complexity, some of the web services haven't upgraded their support from Outlook 97/98 file format to the 2000 version. If you want to experiment with any of these services, a word of caution: back up your contacts file before proceeding.
I setup accounts on each of the four services, and did several imports and synchronizations. I also kept the accounts active for several months and was annoyed to find that each service draws spammers like flies to honey. (Last week Visto filed a lawsuit to try to stop one spammer -- good luck!) Here are my results.
Of the four services, Visto offers the most promise and is probably the one that I will use on a regular basis for my home contacts. I have lots of flexibility in how I setup my synchronization sessions, and can even schedule them on a daily or other periodic basis. I like the way the contact information is presented on the screen, too.
My Yahoo has been around the longest in terms of contact file management and has a large array of file import/export and synchronization tools. However, I had all sorts of trouble getting the TrueSync software to work properly: every time I went to do a sync, I ended up having to reinstall the software or some component. I like My Yahoo for its other services, but I couldn't trust the contact process.
For my work-based contacts, I would probably use Excite's Planner. One drawback is it doesn't have any contact file import/export features, other than using the TrueSync software. Another is that Excite Planner is still very much a beta version, even months after going live: not a good sign for an otherwise fast-moving Internet company. However, it seemed more reliable than My Yahoo.
PlanetAll is focused on setting up friends of friends, the electronic answer to six degrees of separation. Its synchronization is very low budget, and you have limited controls such as only two-way synchronization. It is definitely last in this group.
I'd be interested in hearing if you use any other service and what your experiences have been. And I should mention that there are other wrinkles to the contact management game, including how to keep desktop and web in sync with a Palm or other handheld device. Take a look at an article that I wrote for Small Business Communications several months ago on the topic.
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