Eat The Phonebook

The one feature that unifies each and every Social Network is, rather obviously, making connections. Likewise, regardless of platform or Operating System, the feature that unifies the means by which you communicate from a connected device is an address book. It’s the feature you use without thinking about it. How often have you heard people say that they don’t remember phone numbers anymore? They’re in the mobile, right?

Well, the same is probably true of email addresses, IM IDs, Twitter handles, Skype names and a whole lot of other nom de net. That reeling, scrolling list of friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, followed and followers is your interface to the world. It grows every day and your influence is probably being measured by its size. That digital phonebook of contacts is a battleground in the war over ownership of your social graph and you know what? There isn’t a single company fighting on your side.

First, the fundamental problem: Doesn’t matter how you group, circle, list and/or connect with all those folk, at the moment your buddies are hosed all over your digital footprint. Maybe they’re written in a little black book too. You’ve got numbers on your phone, addresses in your email inbox, a business network on LinkedIn, people you half-care about on Facebook and a bunch of geeks clamouring for your attention on Twitter and Google+. A bunch of disparate contacts spread all over the place.

Wouldn’t it be great if one tool could synchronise all of our contacts and all of their details between mobile, tablet, laptop and desktop?

For everyone’s benefit I spent too much time having a look at the startups that are working to help us solve this almighty headache. There are quite a few. Soocial, Xobni, Gist, Hiya, Connected and Plaxo are perhaps the best known. I’m not going to review them individually, suffice to say they all perform passingly well at gathering contacts from many and various devices, apps and SNS, then providing reasonably good management tools and in most cases, export to csv or vcard.

Unsuprisingly, in their battle for relevance, these companies have a common denominator: they are designed as dashboard destinations, places created for viewing the aggregate activity of your contacts, like some kind of Salesforce Prospects List for social stalkers.

Perhaps I’m reading that wrong but hopefully we don’t all fret about initiating our interactions without advance intel and don’t need to bone up on what someone has been posting online in the moments before we call, message or email.

In short, these services would be ideal for enterprise if, like onsip, they added unified communication. For personal use? Too much work, not inclusive enough and too creepy. All we want to do is keep a list of our contacts in one place, synchronised and safely backed-up (NB: Hats off to Soocial for their sterling work in providing a massive list of supported mobile phones for their SyncML product).

One might have expected a Mobile Operator to take advantage of the opportunity to use IMS/RCS and offer a richly integrated social phonebook experience on the smartphone. Unless the now defunct Vodafone 360 is counted, I’m afraid none of them have. Wandering through the stalls at 3GSM in any of the last three or four years it would have been difficult not to encounter vendors providing perfect RCS contact management solutions. I’m not sure that any one of them made a sale. It would seem as though the Operators have exchanged their on-net subscriber-owning vision for Facebook and Twitter widgets on the Home Screen.

And what of the technological innovation that does away with numbering and addressing? Well, that’s happening, but very slowly, with tiny incremental steps. Sure enough Telnic have been promoting their excellent name-dialing, Voxbone has a great inum initiative, T-Mobile has introduced a natty caller id product and there’s even a scrappy little startup called spelldial that’s worth checking out for a simple over the top solution.

The enum concept is taxiing to the runway but like video-calling, it might be a while before it gets clearance for take-off – and then, to belabour the metaphor, the flightpath might be wholly different from that planned.

Having spent some time looking at this particular problem, it’s plain to me that the answer lies in the Operating System itself, not in some startup, and not in the hands of Facebook. You may never win the battle to own your Social Graph, but here’s my simple advice to help you control it:

If you use a Mac, use Address Book and buy an iPhone or iPad. The successor to MobileMe is going to deal with your contacts quite effortlessly. It will probably do a neat job of integrating Twitter too.

If you buy into Google+, GMail, GoogleDocs, GTalk and Google Voice, then get an Android phone and make sure you set Google Contacts to sync.

If you use Windows and Outlook to manage your contacts, consider buying a Windows smartphone and keep that faith.

Hey, you could always use an excel spreadsheet.

Image: Grist 

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