Web Informant #97, 7 January 1998
Dealing with directories


I am one of those odd people that enjoy paging through a new phone book when it arrives, like the character that Steve Martin played in The Jerk. And I guess it was only a matter of time until this hobby grew into examining the various Internet-based directories.

The latest email software from Qualcomm, Netscape, and Microsoft, support the ability to lookup anyone's email address via the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. You use a search tool to lookup the address in either your own personal address book or in one of about a half-dozen public LDAP servers that come pre-configured with the software. If you don't have these products, you can still use your web browser and go to the various services' web pages and do the search directly.

These public LDAP servers such as Four11, Switchboard and the like are still fairly new, and they aren't tremendously useful yet. There are three basic problems. First, if you are searching for a relatively common name, such as John Smith, you probably aren't going to have much luck finding someone unless you can uniquely locate John Smith by a particular town or business.

Think about searching the entire United States white pages, and how many John Smiths must be listed? Thousands of them. Maybe the listing you are trying to find is J. Smith, or Johnny Smith, or JD Smith? Maybe John got tired of receiving telephone solicitations and now has an unlisted number, or put his listing under his wife's name? Now add to this the problem of frequent moves and changes and you see what you are up against with respect to searching through these LDAP directories.

A second issue is that the directories aren't very complete yet, since many of them have just recently gotten started. Not all email systems have published LDAP information, and won't for some time. No one is obligated to provide this information as part of maintaining a 100% pure Internet email system, and some of the email products don't yet work with LDAP. More to the point, some companies don't want to publish the list of all of their email users to the public for security or privacy reasons. This means that any directory effort, no matter how interoperable and flexible, might still fail if it doesn't have very many listings.

And the third issue has nothing really to do with the protocol itself, but with our alphabet. If we were to print out a list of all our email addresses in alphabetical order, we wouldn't necessarily find it very useful. This is because the email address may not be close to the actual user's name. For example "jjones@example.com" would come after "dstrom@example.com" in almost all of our lists. Yet we might want to look for Jones before Strom in our list, based on a search for surnames. So we then have to establish two different sorting criteria: one for the overall email address, one for surnames that then map to the address.

So I took a look at how the various LDAP directories performed, using that time honored technique of searching for my own name. Now I am probably these directories worst nightmare: just in the last few weeks I have opened up a bunch of test accounts at various Internet providers as part of an article I was writing. On top of this are accounts that I have hardly ever used on various other systems.

For example, Switchboard found six email addresses for David Strom, none of which was I. BigFoot found 11 David Stroms, one was I. Four11 found 15 names, with my name displayed correctly, while WhoWhere found 29 matches but only displayed the first ten on the screen. If I wanted to see the additional listings, I had to perform the search from Worldpages site, which had a screen where I could examine the other listings. None of the directories had any of the new accounts I had established in late December.

Some services listed exact matches for my name, while others provided names that were close matches or used "Dave" instead of "David" or just the initial D. With some listings, I could find duplicate listings. All in all, not a very satisfying experience.

I'd like to see LDAP take off. But in the meantime, I am back to waiting for those new (printed) phone books to arrive.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1998 by David Strom, Inc.
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