For those of you reading my blogs and primarily interested in the TIPS category, I’ll get the useful / utilitarian part of this post out of the way first:
The Plaxo service is pretty darn cool. Despite some annoying quirks, it’s useful, it’s fun, and it’s free. I definitely recommend giving Plaxo a try.
What is it? Well, in a nutshell, Plaxo is a service (with optional software) that allows you to:
– Keep your addressbook up-to-date pretty effortlessly.
– Send out contact-info changes to your friends easily.
– Access your entire addressbook securely on the Web from anywhere.
Read on for my detailed thoughts about Plaxo.
The Plaxo Controversy
First, the boring ‘legalese’:
I’m not affiliated with Plaxo in any way except as a generally happy user of the service and software.
Okay, now with that out of the way… 😀
Since Plaxo’s inception, there’s been a bit of a firestorm on the Internet about privacy, trust, and the evils the service could and might do with your personal info.
After all, they have your e-mail address, full name, and possibly company name, job title, phone numbers, and more. What a treasure trove for telemarketers and other sleazoids, right?
Personally, I think lots of people on the Web are far too paranoid for their own good. Of course, everyone is and should be free to make their own judgement calls about what services and people they trust, but what bothers me is the foaming-at-the-mouth invective and often outright nastiness that’s been flung at Plaxo and other companies like it. “They could sell all our data!” some scream, and “If they get bought out, they’ll betray us!” Many of these people have loudly lumped Plaxo into the category of spammers and virus-makers and worse… IMHO unfairly tarnishing Plaxo’s reputation and unfortunately dissuading many from making an informed opinion about the service.
Do those folks who are angrily ranting about the ‘threats’ of Plaxo realize what data is ALREADY widely (and sometimes freely or cheaply) available about them via their banks, their health insurance company, the department of motor vehicles, the Direct Marketing Association databases, and so on (all of whom are, without a doubt, FAR more palpably evil than companies like Plaxo)? And unlike Plaxo, most of these companies have actively resisted disclosing, much less openly inviting people to check out their privacy policies.
Plus other online entities already have demonstrated the concept of trust. Amazon.com not only has my personal contact info, they also have several of my credit card numbers and my purchase history. What if Amazon.com got bought out, huh, bub? ;-). Strangely, I don’t see too many people flinging epithets at Amazon in their blog entries, speculating about how all their data’ll be sold to the highest bidder if Amazon gets bought out.
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Personally, I’m much more worried about my credit card companies’ policies (especially since they STILL persist on trying to sell me crap over the phone!) than I am about Plaxo. For that matter, I also think there’s a zillion-times greater chance of my personal data being stolen and sold by a waiter who has my credit card number in a back room for a few minutes.
Comparative risks, people. Intelligent weighing of risks and benefits. Plaxo offers what I think most would agree is a useful and interesting service. The tradeoff, in my mind, is a no-brainer. Or, in a more direct / less-eloquent way of putting it: get a grip.
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LEGITIMATE PROBLEMS WITH PLAXO
Despite my defense above, I should, in fairness, point out that there are quite a few problems and annoyances with Plaxo.
1) Privacy issues
There actually is one argument I’ve read from privacy advocates that I can respect. Unlike with services such as Amazon.com, for instance, where each person has the choice of whether or not to submit his or her personal data, with Plaxo, it’s not really up to each individual. In other words, because I have Jim Smith in my addressbook and I send a query to him via Plaxo’s servers (AND I store his data on Plaxo’s site so I can access my addressbook on the Web), Jim has effectively had his data shared without his consent… and possibly even without his knowledge. Of greater concern, if Jim is particularly concerned about Plaxo ‘n’ Privacy, he really has no recourse for getting his name OFF of Plaxo’s servers, short of demanding all of his friends to remove him from their personal addressbooks.
2) UI issues
Plaxo is pretty darn user-friendly, but there are quite a few UI niceties that its engineers have overlooked, and cumulatively, these issues are rather frustrating. For instance, when I’m looking through any large Plaxo list of my contacts, I can’t simply jump to a name by hitting the first few letters. I have to first sort, then scroll. With 600 names in my addressbook, that’s damn annoying, especially if I want to select more than a couple names.
3) Not very customizable
While I can change and add to some of the language in the “please update your contact queries that get sent to friends, far too much of it is fixed — and overly formal. The cringe-worthy closing is “Thanks, Adam Lasnik.” What friend signs off with a closing like that?! And while one can save the (partially) customized mails sent out for future use, they’re neither named nor editable nor deletable. It’s issues like this that suggest that Plaxo has been “dumbed down” er, simplified at the expense of customizability, and frankly, I don’t believe that having a highly customizable (power-user) and user-friendly UI should be mutually exclusive.
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Okay, with all that out of the way, let me explain why I think Plaxo kicks ass and why I’m pretty excited about it.
WHY PLAXO ROCKS
1) One-button sync with secure Web version of my addressbook
This option, included as part of the free service, is wonderfully handy! Had I been using Plaxo when my Palm Pilot was stolen during a trip throughout Europe a while back, I would have had a much easier time (pop into an Internet cafe, log into Plaxo, access the handy PRINT version of my contact list, print it… voila!). Plus, it’s impressive and useful how the Web version offers nearly the identical (and in some cases, actually superior) functionality to the desktop/Outlook/Outlook Express front-end.
2) Support for FoaF (Friend of a Friend) standard
Granted, I’ll admit that I don’t quite yet grasp how this works, nor know if it will end up being widely adopted over time. But the fact that Plaxo has listened to and worked with pioneers in this realm suggests to me that the Plaxo folks are committed to a reasonable amount of interoperability and openness.
3) Good documentation, admirable interactions with customers
Though in the past Plaxo has been criticized for some slowness with customer service responses, I’ve actually been pleased with my experience so far, and also impressed that Plaxo representatives have intelligently and actively participated in multiple forums and even posted on blogs. Plus the Plaxo Web site is pretty informative, with a searchable knowledgebase and multiple ways to contact customer service (even an “emergency” form).
4) Plain English promises and reassurances
As mentioned earlier, Plaxo has admirably taken steps to be a responsible and ethical player in the Internet contact-sync space, and has also clearly articulated their stances and promises on their site.
5) Robust feature set and ease of use.
While Plaxo occupies a pretty busy space (with, among others, GoodContacts and AddresSender), it seems to have the edge in features and makes them nicely accessible via a number of different ways — both via client software and the Web.
and most importantly…
6) Strong usefulness!
When you start having many hundreds of contacts like I do from all over the world, something like Plaxo is a Godsend! I haven’t yet used it to do a full scan, but when I used the similar GoodContacts software a couple of years ago, I found myself instantly provided with literally dozens of critical contact info updates from friends, and also some friendly catch-up notes from people who hadn’t written me for a long time. I also got quite a few bounces, which saved me from writing long letters to people whose contact info was long since out of date.
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THE RESULTS SO FAR IN MY TESTING…
I have tested out Plaxo on a handful of friends and personal test accounts so far, and the responses and results have been generally positive.
– All said the process of responding was straightforward and easy.
– In every case, the info they input was added flawlessly to my Outlook addressbook.
– In my own tests, Plaxo requests weren’t viewed as spam either on my Yahoo or Hotmail accounts. Unfortunately, one friend at Cornell found my Plaxo request in his spam folder. 🙁
– One friend was reluctant to supply his address, due to privacy concerns; he sent that to me separately via my Web forum, whereupon I mercilessly teased him about being a hypocrite :D.
– And one other friend was angry that I had disclosed his “personal” e-mail address to a third party, but that doesn’t say anything about Plaxo in particular.
– I’ve noticed a couple of minor bugs, such as an improper date stamp in one area of my Plaxo reports, but the engineer I corresponded with has noted that this should be fixed promptly.
After I square away a few things, I plan on doing a much larger test with Plaxo (over several hundred contacts), and — if there’s interest — I’ll report my findings back here in my blog.
In the meantime, I encourage you to post your Plaxo concerns, kudos, and questions below if you’d like, and I’ll do my best to address what I can and – within reason — test specific stuff out for you. Of course, if you’re as geeky and curious as I am, you’ll want to download and play with Plaxo yourself :-). I say go for it!