Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gmail's contact management is the pits

I have been a big fan of Gmail for the past two years until lately when they made "improvements" to their interface -- and have gone a step backwards.

For those of you still living in the stone ages, Google's Gmail is a free Webmail service, and available for free as well for domains that you own too. Their philosophy is to have world-class search, to be able to classify messages so that you can easily find them. Oh yeah, and do no evil. They lose on all three counts by me.

What did they break? The whole contact management section, that's all. There is no easy way to delete a contact from a group once you have more than a few groups. The interface takes longer to load and requires a more recent Web browser to work. Safari 2 and IE 6 aren't recent enough, it seems. And, the whole search engine thing is broken: if I want to search on a term that is part of my notes on a contact, I can't do it with the Search interface of the contacts page. For example, I am heading out to Boulder to visit my daughter next month: a search on "Boulder" comes up empty, even though I know I have entered information on several people in the area. The old interface worked just fine, and displayed things correctly, and could search across any data that you entered in your contacts.

Gmail's contact groups have been the weakest part of the service for a while. In late June, all of my group members went missing for about 24 hours, and I -- and many others -- had a fit.

At the heart of any email solution for me are two things: being able to run it from any Web browser and being closely tied to my contacts. Gmail does neither: to delete that errant contact mentioned earlier, I had to bring up a version of Windows with IE6. That seems backwards.

What I liked about Gmail was being able to create ad hoc groups and mini-mailing lists of my contacts, arranged by subject, geography, or some other common thread. I must have 40 or 50 different groups of my more than 8500 contacts. I am not trying to brag, but I took the whole notion of "never throw anything away" to heart and now am stuck with this huge list.

Gmail offers ways that you can export your contacts into a CSV or a file that contains V-cards, but neither of these exports contains the group identities of the contacts. The only way that I have figured out to make backups of this information is to take screen shots one by one of the groups that are displayed. Talk about the stone ages. This is so cumbersome that I have only done it once, since shortly after the group memberships were restored from the June outage.

So what can I do? I could get off of Gmail, but that means finding something else to use for my contacts and cleaning them up. Plaxo Pulse and LinkedIn both do a nice job of keeping everyone's contact info current, but neither have a nice Webmail solution. Apple's Address Book can take the Gmail V-card export just fine and also do the searching across all contact information, but that ties me to a Mac when I travel. I could go with a Web-based ACT solution, but I have stayed away from ACT for this long I am not sure I want to start now. And I don't want to run an Exchange server and use Outlook Web access either.

Of course, Google could fix their contact management module, but I am not holding my breath. I hate it when software companies succumb to adding features at the expense of usability, and turn a great product into an also-ran. I guess they are taking some lessons in becoming evil from their pals in Redmond.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.