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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Becoming more agile

There is all this talk about making companies more agile. And with more than two million hits on Google the term may even be more popular in some circles than Web 2.0 this week. (Well, we can only wish.) Certainly, part of understanding agility is changing how you develop and bring your products to market -- write better code, make more reliable hardware, work more adeptly with Internet services, respond better to customer complaints or suggestions. But another part of agility is understanding the "softer" side of your company, such as being able to better hire, train, and retain your people. Too often management tends to forget that it is the people that make an organization, not just the products.

I thought about this recently for a story that I wrote for the New York Times that is out today about contact management software. I first got the idea from a colleague that I met at the local National Speakers Association chapter here in St. Louis. He had some computer issues running ACT on an old Macintosh. He was keeping the aging Mac around because ACT was essential to running his speaking business and he didn't want to have to a Windows PC just to run the latest versions of ACT. That got me going on the idea for the story, and the Times was interested enough to give me the assignment.

Too often a small business gets wrapped up in the wrong technology and their agility suffers as a result. Actually, it can be any sized business. Take a look at what happened to IBM back in the 1990s when its mainframe-centric world collapsed and they had to reinvent themselves as a software and services company. I was reminded of this when at a lecture last night by Harvard biz school professor Lynda Applegate, who has done some consulting for them over the years. IBM went from the most profitable company in the 1980s to losing billions in 1991.

But a better situation is when a company builds in agility from the get-go. They don't stay small too long because they can grow. As an example, take the woman that I interviewed for the Times who runs her own business in Orlando. When she started her company, she thought she would use a traditional model of having everyone come into a single office. But as she got clients around the country, she realized that this wasn't a workable model.

Part of what was holding back her operations were outmoded contact and sales management tools. The assumption was that a single PC would house this information, and that everyone would create their own documents on their own PCs. As a result, there wouldn't be much need to share data among different staffers. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Once they implemented an Internet-based contact and document system, things changed. The firm found out that they could hire anyone and that they can work anywhere. "We didn't intend to run our business in a virtual environment when we got started but realized that we can hire people based on their skills and our needs regardless of their location," says Lara Triozzi, the president of MarketLauncher Inc. But now that they have a taste for the "virtual environment" – meaning that their critical IT components are outsourced and available via the Internet -- they really like it and it is the core of how they will grow their business going forward.

They got some side benefits from this strategy, too. The outsourced contacts vendor that they picked (ACT Remote) also handles all of their security, backups, and tech support, and the vendor also hosts all of their Microsoft Office applications and data, too. Now they have freed themselves from having stand-alone and isolated applications, and can share information around the company without having to worry if someone left something on their PC and didn't come into work that day.

That is what agility is all about.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Are PR people spammers?

Paul Gillin and I do this weekly podcast called TechPRWarStories, and we both have a lot of fun with it. The episodes are less than 15 minutes and talk about issues that pertain to public relations and hi tech, something we both have a little experience with. The latest episode (#33, wow!) we talk about Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson’s anti-spam manifesto, which includes the publication of hundreds of addresses of PR people who are banned from his inbox. I am appalled that Anderson would go so far as to publicize e-mail addresses for every spambot to harvest. Paul agrees, but sees merit in the problem that Anderson is highlighting. Both of us agree that there are tools journalists can use to manage their inboxes more effectively and that the onus is on reporters to become familiar with those tools.

We also discuss Steve Rubel’s blog post this week in which he laments the craziness that has overtaken the Web 2.0 market.

Have a listen, subscribe, send us some comments please!

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.