I get a chuckle over this every time it happens. Something in one of the many synch tools I use does some sort of conversion of birth dates, and I end up with alerts on my Mac that tell me somebody is having a really great birthday:

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 10.46.55 AM

I also see the opposite where I’ll get a reminder that today is somebody’s second or third birthday.

In the case of the ones where they show up younger, it’s usually because wherever I got their birthdate from originally, they didn’t put in the year. So that usually ends up being the year that the contact was entered into my address book.

But in the case of the incredibly old dates, my address book typically has an 1800’s date, so my guess is it’s some system breaking on a date overrun. I’ve also noticed that sometimes these contacts have two birth dates in my address book (again, some symptom of a synch problem), so for instance Reinald has both a birthday in the 1800’s and one a littler more reasonable than that.

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Comcast logo I recently switched from DSL (which I’d had since it first was invented) to Comcast Cable for my Internet connection (and TV and phone). By doing so I saved about a hundred bucks a month over AT&T and DirecTV. Of course as soon as I switched, AT&T started calling me with a bundle that was roughly the same price, but that’s a different story.

One of the things that happened a while back was that Plaxo was bought by Comcast. I have always been a premium Plaxo user, feeling that I wanted to support them since I find the product so incredibly useful. What I learned was that if you are a Comcast subscriber, you are automatically a Plaxo premium user.

Now, being a premium subscriber used to only mean you got VIP support and access to a couple of tools (like the address and calendar deduplication tool). But now Plaxo has announced that the Outlook synch is a premium member only tool. While I worry that this decreases the value of the service (since there will be fewer reasons for people to sign up, therefore fewer members, and decreasing the number of automatic updates I get), what is interesting is that every Comcast subscriber gets access to these premium services.

To activate this, first you have to make sure that you are signed up for Plaxo through your Comcast email account. First, log in to your Comcast email by going to http://www.comcast.net and clicking on the Email link in the “My Comcast” portlet:

My Comcast

If you’re logged in already it will go straight to your email, otherwise you’ll get the login screen, where you need to log in:

comcast login

Log in with your Comcast email address. This will be something like your last name and street address unless you’ve changed it. Once you have logged in, you’ll be at the Comcast email screen, which uses the Zimbra email client. From the tabs, you’ll want to choose the address book:

Comcast email tabs

The first time you go to the address book, you’ll be asked to build your address book:

comcast build address book

If you click on the “build your address book”, you’ll go to an initial Plaxo setup screen. Since they already have some of your information (name and email), they don’t have to ask you for anything but where you want to populate your address book from:

plaxo uab

So now it gets interesting. If you click on Plaxo, you can link an existing Plaxo account to your Comcast email. If you were already a Plaxo user, this will get your current address book and calendar.

Plaxo Link account

If you’re not already a Plaxo subscriber, you can choose one of the other options to build your address book by logging you in and pulling the address book from there:

Plaxo UAB Gmail

Note that the GMail synch only works for accounts ending in “gmail.com“,  and not GMail accounts that are using Google Apps. I suspect that Yahoo accounts would also be restricted to “yahoo.com“, but I don’t know that for sure.

There’s a shortcut to signup to Plaxo immediately by simply going to http://www.plaxo.com/ftue/activateComcast, clicking the Activate button will get you set up:

Plaxo activate

This one does require you to fill in your name and basic information (or link to your existing Plaxo account by following the link at the bottom right). Either way, once you have the account linked, you are signed up and active as a premium member. Now not only can you set up synch points, but you can also install the Outlook synch tool on any computer you use.

Along the way the steps will ask you to update your address book, and if you want to invite your friends. I always skip that step, since I send my friends enough email already.

At the end, you can validate that you’re a premium member by clicking on “Settings” at the top right of the screen, and then choosing “Premium” from the list at the left:

Plaxo Premium

This shows my account has premium status.

If you use Outlook, there’s a few more steps to get fully set up with the Outlook synch tool. There are multiple ways to get there, but ultimately you want to download the sync tool from http://www.plaxo.com/people/tools?src=tools

plaxo premium tools

Note that you have access to all of these tools, some of which are very cool (like being able to roll back your address book). If you aren’t a Plaxo premium subscriber, you can download and install the tool, but you won’t be able to use it, since the synch verifies the account status when you run it for the first time.

Plaxo has a nice walkthrough of the install process here: http://www.plaxo.com/downloads/outlook?src=pulse_tools_outlook〈=en, so I won’t duplicate that. One thing that I did learn the last time I did this for somebody is that you have to install it with an account that has admin priviledges. The install won’t fail, but you just won’t get the Plaxo tool bar in Outlook.

Once the install completes, and you start Outlook up, it will walk you through a wizard that will sync your Outlook and Plaxo address books. From then on, you should see the Plaxo tool bar at the top of your Outlook screen:

Plaxo bar in outlook

There are lots of other neat things about Plaxo, not the least of which is that you can synch between multiple machines. There’s a version of Plaxo for the Mac, and it seems to do a fair job of interacting with the built-in Mac synch tools (including MobileMe).

I’d definitely recommend you take advantage of this “free” service if you are a Comcast internet subscriber.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen businesses make over the years is to lose focus on what made them successful in the first place.

Over the last year or so I’ve become more disappointed with Plaxo. They seem to have forgotten that their key differentiation in the market was the way that they helped you keep your address book (and calendar) up to date, and secondarily to keep multiple services in synch.

To me they seem to be chasing social networking at the expense of the things that they already were really good at. Perhaps part of this is because they got bought by Comcast, but losing focus is never a good thing. They gave the site a face lift a while back and added a whole social networking thing with the Pulse bit, which seems to be modeled after some other social networking sites.

The thing that drew me to Plaxo (almost ten years ago now) was that it solved a huge problem for me: keeping my address book up to date. Before Plaxo, I’d SPAM my address book about once a year to see if I got any bounces, and then go through the bounces one by one to update them. This ended up being a lot of work, and had no guarantee of making sure that I had up to date information for anybody. Also there’s the problem that when people change their email address, it doesn’t always bounce, so I could be sending email to a dead account. Lots of companies leave old email addresses open and/or don’t send bounce messages for invalid addresses, so no reply doesn’t always mean what you think it might. And if you ask for a response, not everybody will anyway.

The other problem before Plaxo (B.P.) was that my address book was never very reliable. Sometimes I would get an email, and save it to my address book, but if I didn’t have a business card or some way to gather other information about them, that would be the only information in the address book. So six months later when they moved to the new company, I had no email address or way to find them.

So while I was still working at Quovera, Praveen Shah pointed out Plaxo to us as a cool thing. I fell in love instantly. Not only did it give me a backup of all of my contact and calendar data, it offered to automate my getting more accurate data. A few clicks, and Plaxo sent out an email that gave each person in my address book (who didn’t belong to Plaxo) a personalized message from me with their address information, asking them if everything was up-to-date (and of course inviting them to join Plaxo). If the data was good, they simply clicked a button and my address book was updated to say it was valid. If they had changes, they could enter them in the form that was emailed, and Plaxo would automatically take that data and put it into my address book. Best of all, it was free, and they promised to keep your contact data private.

There was also the exciting possibility that if everybody you knew joined Plaxo, you’d never need to ask for an update again, because Plaxo would automatically flow information changes between Plaxo members in your address book. For that alone, I paid the premium support price because I wanted to see them succeed.

And the other bit that was extremely well done was the synchronization between clients. If you used multiple machines, it was really easy to keep them in synch and for the most part it didn’t seem to have the habit that some other synchronization software at the time did of duplicating everything over and over.

At some point they got a reputation from some people as being a spammer, I think mostly because during the install it was easy to have Plaxo send an email to everybody in your address book even if you didn’t mean to.  I did this a couple of times myself and ended up sending Plaxo requests to people like John Chambers (who of course I don’t really have any reason to email directly). I suspect mistakes like this caused the spammer reputation because you’d get asked about the email, and it was easier to blame Plaxo than to admit that you forgot to uncheck John Chambers when you asked for updates.

Anyway back to the point of this story, with their new social networking focus, they no longer have any way to automatically keep address information up to date for people who are not Plaxo members. In fact the only way you can ask somebody for an update to their information is to invite them to join your Pulse (or the old fashioned email approach). So that works for the people who join and don’t mind having yet another social network to think about, but I’m back to square one for people who won’t join Plaxo (often because of the spammer reputation).

It still gives me synchronization between my different computers, and a few of my online address books, but it’s no longer as powerful as before. I’ll probably still use it if I were in the situation I’ve been in before where I needed to keep my address book and calendar in synch at the client site with my home address book and calendar. But now I need to find a solution for the larger part of my address book updating that drove me to Plaxo to begin with.

So don’t be surprised to get spammed by me with an email that says “I’m updating my address book, and this is what I have for you, please update …”

As to Plaxo – I saw this same sort of thing happen when I was at Excite. We basically were Google: had the best search engine on the planet, our home page was just a search box, and we were doing a better job with the technology than anybody else. But we were smaller than Yahoo (and Alta Vista), and we started to model our web site after a magazine (a lot of trying to match or beat Yahoo instead of focusing on our core competency). It’s my opinion that it was that very loss of focus that resulted in Excite being bought, and folded into one failing company after another.

Excite still exists, and the even still sport the LEP (Little Excite Person) logo, but between losing focus (and of course timing) they are no Google (in fact I wonder if they even do their own search any more).

I am hopeful that Plaxo will reinvent themselves and give me back the functionality that drew me to them, because if they don’t I fear they are destined follow Excite‘s example: they’ll become an also-ran in the social networking space instead of the stellar provider of a technology that can make life better for anybody who uses it.

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