Remember that old slogan used by the U.S. Postal Service at the launch of its Zip Code program way back in July 1963? You know, "Mail moves the country, and Zip Code moves the mail!" The government started using it to promote the use of the Zip Code on envelopes and other mail, something we really don't think twice about today.
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The whole idea behind the Zip Code was to take advantage of the growing number of regional hubs for air, rail and road transportation and assign a number system to speed delivery of packages to these key locations. Essentially, the Zip Code simplified the mailing and sorting process for the Postal Service, and resulted in your creditors getting your payments a little faster.
We are sort of facing the same 'get it right, get it fast' problem right now in terms of e-mail addresses and maintaining our own personal files. Some of the executives I speak to claim to receive up to 100 or more e-mail messages per day, and have personal and corporate e-mail address books that are growing by leaps and bounds. Here at Shoreline, we maintain several lists of executives and companies (only because we are e-mail packrats!), and spend quite a bit of time sifting through messages, plucking out and saving e-mail addresses, and cultivating our Outlook file so that it is up to date and available from anywhere and anytime.
So, if a utility or two comes along that makes the job of 'e-mail farming' and cultivation a little easier, then we waste little time in taking it out for a real-time spin. One of the technologies we are testing right now is from a start-up company based in Mountain View, Calif., called Plaxo, Inc., which sounds like some kind of dental product but is in reality one of a handful of firms that are focused on the growing problem most individuals and companies are having in keeping electronic address information fresh and timely. The company was launched by one of the founders of the much-maligned and criticized file-sharing service Napster, and just like Napster incorporates some peer-to-peer tricks to make address maintenance a bit less burdensome.
Eliminating the dust
Basically, here is how it works: You download the free software from the Plaxo Web site ( www.plaxo.com), and install it on your desktop or notebook computer. Once installed, the software analyzes your Microsoft Outlook address file (the company is now working on a version for Outlook Express), and catalogues each and every address in that file. When you launch the program (which is automatically integrated into the menu bar in the Outlook application), it graphically shows you which addresses are used most often, and which have been gathering electronic dust sitting in your computer's hard drive. You can then blast messages out to everyone on your contacts list, or to just those you select from your graphical Plaxo list, inviting recipients to update their address information.
Plaxo notifies you via an e-mail message if your Outlook address file has been updated with new information, or if your address query has reached a dead end. The software also forwards a virtual business card containing your information, which can easily be inserted into the recipient's address file. All in all, very friendly and extremely well-integrated into the Outlook 'look and feel.'
One of the really neat features of Plaxo is that the software will automatically communicate and coordinate e-mail addresses and information with other Plaxo users -- sort of a peer-to-peer collaboration that stems from the founder's previous experience with the file-sharing environment of Napster. What this means is that is another Plaxo user updates their personal information, your system will automatically "sniff out' these changes and synchronize those updates without you having to lift a digital finger. This update function operates as long as your Outlook is up and running, and when you make changes to your address info you can specify who should and should not get your fresh contact data.
Plaxo also offers a 'Plaxo Today' button on your Outlook menu that provides the ability to automatically view how many address files have been updated, how many of those people in those files are Plaxo users, and how many updates are pending or have not yet been answered. In a short, the software embeds a whole new level of control and utility into the Outlook program. It is also secure, since you have the option of restricting data, or locking out those users you do not want privy to your information (like that former boss that you want to keep tabs on, but don't necessarily want to share your updated information).
The name game
Plaxo is not the only game in town when it comes to these self propagating "peer-to-peer" address updaters and utilities that help make the process of keeping up to date less of a burden. One of the first to ply this market is GoodContacts, developed by an Ottawa, Canada company of the same name, which has been around since November 2000 and is presently used by individuals and companies in more than 60 countries worldwide ( www.goodcontacts.com). Another is AddressSender ( www.addressender.com), which offers a limited personal edition and a more flexible version for business users.
We have had the opportunity to test drive GoodContacts, and also found it to be smooth and very effective. Just like Plaxo, GoodContacts can be used to send update requests and notices to individuals captured within your Outlook address file, and can be tweaked to automatically work in the background when your Outlook program is active.
Since GoodContacts does have a little more history than Plaxo, however, the software's developers have had the benefit of collecting user feedback and suggestions for improvement, and have incorporated many of these into recent updates of the program. One of these is the ability to automatically elect and issue update requests of small chunks of your data base at a time - for example, 20 or 30 contacts per week over a six month period. The benefit of this is that it limits the number of confirmation and bounced messages you get back, which might be a problem if your address file is as full-figured as ours.
GoodContacts also has a mail merge function, which automatically inserts the name of the targeted person on your address update list, and a 'people in the inbox' function that will identify e-mail addresses in your inbox that may not be contained on your address file. The product's developers have also made efforts to improve the data formatting capabilities of its software, assuring consistency among phone number entries and such; and has been enhanced to accommodate increasing restrictions on HTML e-mails and files, allowing the software to blast out text-based queries and solicitations when it senses an HTML block.
The major difference between Plaxo and GoodContacts right now is that Plaxo is completely free of charge, while GoodContacts has implemented a modest licensing fee structure. This isn't necessarily a tie breaker, though, since the Plaxo people are still trying to work out their revenue model and will eventually opt for a fee-based structure or perhaps insert advertising into e-mail update solicitations (which would be a very bad thing to do, in our opinion).
We think either program is a lot of merit, especially if your Outlook file is growing to the size of a small third-world country. While consumers and individual business users may find either application useful, we think corporations will have a tough time officially adopting the software since they do incorporate peer-to-peer technology elements (which presently do not get a lot of respect from the business community due to security concerns); and at least in Plaxo's case, captured and updated e-mails can be remotely accessible via the Internet (at the user's discretion, of course). Unfortunately, (or fortunately) many companies frown on any type of third-party solution that channels potentially sensitive information through non-corporate host servers.
About the author: Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, MA based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.