As part of my seemingly never-ending quest to get data synced between multiple computers running different software, I decided to give Plaxo another go. They felt terribly intrusive the last time I tried them, which admittedly was over 5 years ago. The reason I decided to give Plaxo another go is because research was showing me that they were one of the few services that could sync with Thunderbird. Here’s my setup:

  • Office: Currently WinXP using MS Office – this will change once I start at the new place though, since they are a mac shop
  • Home: Four machines – two Win laptops running Thunderbird, one WinXP desktop running Thunderbird and one mac OSX using mail.app
  • Mobile: Windows Mobile on a Treo 750 running Outlook for Windows Mobile

I don’t need my actual email synced, since I use IMAP for just about everything – but contact list syncing was a real priority for me. I was using Memotoo for a little while, since they offer LDAP services for specific addy book groups, which meant I could share my animal welfare contacts with my board members. Problem is, its not a two-way sync, so I would still have to login to Memotoo to make address book updates. Boo. That said, being able to share addresses by LDAP was a bonus, but not a hardcore requirement – so my needs were not being met. Plus, the Thunderbird add-on that synced with Memotoo randomly stopped working one day. So even the bonus wasn’t working anymore.

At first, Plaxo seemed perfect. I imported my contacts into Plaxo using gmail (which meant alot of outdated contacts were pulled in, but oh well.) I synced that up with Outlook and got a merged version of all of my contacts. I de-duped using their shmancy de-duping tool, and spent some time updating information, deleting contacts, and cleaning up data. Synced again with my Treo using their Windows Mobile sync software, and everything worked marvelously. When I got home, I installed their Thunderbird plugin. I deleted my address book, since everything in it was old, and I only wanted the new version that I had spent so long cleaning up. Unfortunately, this time, things went wrong. Rather than using Plaxo as the authoritative source, it used Thunderbird as the authoritative source – effectively deleting all of my contacts. I tried syncing with my Treo to restore the contacts, but this time it did use Plaxo as the authoritative source, and then the contacts disappeared off my Treo. At this point I was pretty pissed.

When I got back to work the next day, I fired up Outlook. The Plaxo plugin in Outlook is at least smart enough to ask before deleting 500 contacts. It asked me if I wanted to delete them all, which would be done if I synced, since once again, Plaxo was being used as the authoritative source. I said no. I synced my Outlook back to my Treo to restore the contacts there and made a backup of my contacts. I synced with Plaxo, my contacts were deleted, and then I imported my backup address book into Outlook and synced. This time Outlook was seen as the authoritative source, and my contacts were back in Plaxo.

The final test – I got home, and decided to try syncing with Plaxo from Thunderbird again. Plaxo does periodic backups of your address book, so if something went wrong, I could always restore from backup using their system. This time, inexplicably, it worked like a charm. My contacts all imported in like buttah. I made a few changes in Plaxo, synced again, and the updates were reflected in Thunderbird. Wewt.

So anyway – it looks like Plaxo will actually be the solution I’m looking for. Not sure what happened the first time with Thunderbird, but it would sure be nice if you had the option of which direction the sync would go, so mishaps don’t happen like that.  But overall, if you’re looking to a solution to having a million address books, all in various stages of disarray, Plaxo may be a good solution for you too.

Interestingly, they’re now jumping on the social networking bandwagon – they used to be just contact management. Their social networking system is called Pulse, and although the last thing I need is another social networking site, they are smart enough to realize that people are probably already using a bunch of them, and so Pulse is specifically set up to be able to pull data in from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, and about 20 other social networks – so it doesn’t really have to be treated as a new social network if you don’t want.

One of the nice things about Plaxo is that (at least before, not sure about now) if your contact signed up for Plaxo, their information was considered authoritative in your addy book – which means your contacts update their own information in your address book – this was a very clever feature for people with a lot of contacts that move or change jobs often.

As an aside, I like the direction many of these social networks are going in – they’re finally all starting to put in the ever-important customizable filters and they’re being a lot better about pulling in data from other sites. I’m sure that felt a lot like sleeping with the enemy for many of them at first (or at least parsing rss feeds with the enemy), but I think they’re finally starting to get the fact that people are not going to stick to just one network (theirs). Rather than trying to fight that, they’re starting to make it easier for people to integrate the systems they like best. People will use the systems they like best for different aspects of their life. I use LJ to blog, since it has the most filter support. I use Facebook to post items of interest, since their browser widget makes it a two-click experience. I use Twitter to post quickies, since Twitterfox and Twitter’s gtalk interface makes it so darned easy. I use Picasa for photo storage because the desktop integration makes it so easy to upload photos. I use MySpace for – well, nothing really, but I do have an account, if for no reason than to redirect people to my Facebook  and LJ accounts. I don’t think Plaxo supports LJ, but it supports just about everything else I’d want, so that’s handy.

Anyway, other than the one glitch – the one that had me pretty pissed, I admit – Plaxo seems to be spot on for what I need. It may be more than many of you need, but it looks perfect for what I need. As an added bonus, it syncs your tasks, calendar and notes (all your standard Office stuff) as well. Unfortunately, Thunderbird doesn’t have good calendar or notes support , so once I’m off using Office, that will be a wasted feature for me.

Something I wish Plaxo supported: the ability to define the groups you invite people under. Currently you can invite people as “Friends”, “Business” or “Family”.  While that probably works for most people, “Business” to me could be a tech contact or an animal welfare contact. Those labels define what content you allow each group to see, so it would be nice if there were a few user-defined groups in there, too – but I can live without it.

Interestingly, I had posted on Twitter how pissed I was when Plaxo first ate my contacts. Less than a few hours later, I got a reply on my Twitter feed from the guy who heads up marketing for Plaxo, asking what was wrong. While part of me was a little creeped out by that – and still another part of me wanted to ask if part of his job as head of marketing is to troll Twitter for references to Plaxo – it certainly is nice that they’re taking a proactive approach to fixing things that customers are having trouble with.

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I’m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...