Elgan: I want my mobile social address book

We have the technology. We even have the data. So why are we still using business cards?

Business cards are as obsolete as fax machines. And like fax machines, business cards have us still using paper to move electronic data from one digital system to another.

Let's review the whole archaic process. Send your electronic contact information to some company that prints it out on dead tree pulp. (The printing company requires the information electronically because, of course, giving it to them on paper would be an absurd waste of effort for them.)

Before leaving on a business trip, you have to make sure you remember to bring a stack of business cards, and transport them so they don't get folded, dog-eared or mutilated.

Meet someone. Shake hands. Exchange those tiny pieces of paper.

If you're good, you'll remember to find the card and do something with it after returning home -- along with all the other 20 cards you collected. Take a deep breath because, despite all that college education, you're now a data entry worker. Type that information into Microsoft Outlook or some other application that supports contacts. Don't make any errors!

Congratulations! You've now spent a huge amount of valuable time and effort to transmit digital data from one electronic contact database to another. The Internet could have done it for you more accurately in less than a second.

If you have the right kind of cell phone, you might synchronize your desktop contacts list with your phone.

Over time, the people you meet get new phone numbers, e-mail addresses or even new jobs. Women get married and change their names. Your contacts grow increasingly inaccurate and useless over time.

Separately, you maintain a LinkedIn profile, and maybe one on Facebook, too. This is better, because contact with "friends" is maintained. But that doesn't help the obsolete numbers on your cell phone. So when it's time to call someone, you're out of luck.

What a time-wasting mess.

Here's how it should work

Shake hands. Each of you pulls out a cell phone. "What's your LinkedIn profile?" Open your phone's contact application, and press a single button. Choose LinkedIn from the drop-down menu, and type in the other person's profile specifier (in my case, it's "elgan" -- five quick digits). Press "Send." Done!

In bigger meetings, it becomes standard to add the appropriate social address book links with the invitation. The contact exchange happens before the meeting even starts, and that ridiculous contact exchange ritual is banished from the boardroom forever.

So what happened here?

Pushing that button in your phone's contacts application opened a special "social address book" function that e-mailed an invitation to connect to the other people. When they accept, your contacts flow into their LinkedIn address book and theirs into yours.

In the future, when you get a new phone number, a notice goes out to all your contacts saying you have new info and would they like to accept it. Likewise, when other people's info changes, you get a notice followed by updated information.

This hypothetical mobile social address book system is better than the old business-cards-and-data-entry system because 1) it requires almost zero effort; 2) it autosyncs contact information to the applications you use to contact people, including on your phone, where it really counts; 3) data is always accurate and up to date; and 4) you maintain only your own information, not everybody's.

The same process happens on other business social networks like Plaxo and on personal social networks like Facebook and MySpace. All sync into the same personal, central contacts database, and conflicts are resolved by asking you which version to pick.

Beautiful, right? The scenario above barely scratches the surface of the myriad benefits of mobile social address books done right. The best part is that all the technology for this exists. Even the data exists. All that's required now is industry cooperation and leadership.

I've given you one scenario of how mobile social address books should work. Here's the list of criteria for what the system should let you do.

  • Change your own contact info and have that information flow into other people's contacts databases, no matter which services they're using.
  • Constantly synchronize social network contacts with any cell phone or desktop contact software.
  • When a contact calls, your phone displays a photo, social networking "status" info, as well as past meetings and any notes you've entered on that contact.
  • Choose your own written form of communication: e-mail, social network message, IM, Twitter, Skype chat -- whatever. So, for example, you can choose e-mail, and I can choose Facebook messaging. You send an e-mail to me, and I get a Facebook message. I reply with a Facebook message, and you get an e-mail.
  • Connect with calendar data so meetings with contacts are logged with the contact data. That way you'll be reminded in the future about your history with each contact.
  • Kill any contact information. You should have the ability to decide you don't want to share your Skype contact anymore, so you should be able to blast it from everybody's address books.

Your address book is your social network

As is often the case when I write a column like this, I will get several e-mails from the PR departments of various companies telling me they already do all this. Except they don't.

Plaxo got close first, and was a pioneer in letting you nag everyone to update contacts and enabling people to update their contact info in your address book. But although Plaxo has life-streaming and limited social networking features, it's still no LinkedIn or Facebook in terms of being a central social network for real engagement.

Start-ups like DubMeNow are working on the business-card-replacement end of it, and are also working on integration with LinkedIn, Android and iPhone. But they're not even going to launch their public beta until mid-October (and the official launch is scheduled for Nov. 19).

Facebook is working on something in this area, but won't say what. Yesterday at the GigaOM Mobilize conference in San Francisco, an audience member pointed out to a panel that a phone's address book in fact is that person's social network. Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya responded with: "That's a great observation. Stay tuned." That sounds to me like Facebook will be announcing something in this area soon.

LinkedIn is partway there, with its contacts functionality. But how do I get people to update their address books? Most of my contacts don't keep all contact information on LinkedIn for some reason. And how do I sync LinkedIn with my phone?

Digsby unifies IM messaging with Facebook and MySpace messages, but doesn't include other social networks, e-mail or other forms of written communication.

Many, many other companies are working on various parts of this system.

The mobile social address book of the future is coming. The bits and pieces of it are already out there, scattered all over the place and being used every day. It's time for the industry to pull together and agree on standards for making mobile social address books a reality.

Somebody call me when that happens -- if you have my new number.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, "The World Is My Office." You can contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, "The Raw Feed."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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