Plaxo’s surprise: An ambitious contacts-calendar service

updated

plaxologo.jpgPlaxo, the contacts updating service, was popular briefly a few years ago but then started irritating people — it would constantly ping you with update requests from friends and solicitations to join Plaxo.

In short, it got a reputation of being “evil,” and then turned quiet, and we wondered if we’d ever hear from it again.

But tomorrow, the company launches with a promising new release. It’s a complete overhaul, and extremely ambitious. In some ways, it looks like it wants to target Facebook.

First, it lets you sync your Plaxo account with the contacts lists and calendars of whole variety of services, including Yahoo, AOL, Outlook, Gmail, LinkedIn, MSN and Max OS X. It also provides a mobile version (http://m.plaxo.com) that makes it easy to access your contacts book, make calls and manage your calendar.

It provides the automatic synchronization features Plaxo is known for: After the initial sync, whenever you add or update a contact in Outlook, for example, it is automatically added to your other accounts. Say goodbye to that hassle of inputing names of contacts into your phone when you already have the name in your Outlook. From now on, they’ll already be there.

It is more ambitious than just a contacts service, however. Co-founder Todd Masonis and VP of marketing John McCrea showed us how it seeks to offer good part of your daily planning activities and communications with friends. If you think of the sync service as Plaxo’s “platform” offering, the ability to share with friends is the “application” that sites on top. It is the ultimate mashup site. For example, a link in a contact card allows you to call the contact with Jajah, the Internet phone service — convenient because it is cheaper than most alternatives. Plaxo also lets you import photos from Flickr, to adorn your calendar. Within the Plaxo dashboard, you can share three weeks of your calendar with friends, track upcoming important dates such as birthdays or wedding anniversaries, and use a mapping service to find driving directions to your contacts. The list goes on.

This is a departure from the “invisible” strategy Plaxo pursued. It is now unabashedly a destination site.

Moreover, Plaxo offers you the equivalent of Facebook’s “feed” which shows you updates from your friends. Called “Pulse,” Plaxo’s version lets you track most of your friends’ activities (if they allow you to track them, that is). If they post photos on Flickr, you’ll see that. If they publish a new blog post, you’re notified. If someone adds a book to their Amazon wishlist, you’re notified — and so on. Like on Facebook, you can choose which friends you want to be informed about, and what activities you want to follow. The only difference from Facebook is that Plaxo is limited to tracking only your contacts.

Some of this is built with help from the employees Plaxo picked up after the acquisition of Hipcal calendar service last year.

It is also offered in French, German, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese.

Unfortunately, the sync with LinkedIn is a premium service. A $50/year subscription gives you this, backup and recovery, 24/7 phone support, the ability to store more than 1,000 contacts, and the ability to remove duplicate contact and calendar entries. Also, syncing with Google’s Gmail contacts doesn’t work yet, because of Google’s poor API. Syncing doesn’t work with Hotmail either. Both of these syncs will be made possible in coming weeks, Masonis said.

In other news, Plaxo is about break-even. It signed a deal with Comcast to offer contact synchronization services, and Comcast pays for that. Since 2001, Plaxo has raised $19.3 million in venture capital from Sequoia Capital, Globespan and Cisco. It also raised $6.7 in stock warrants two years ago.

There’s a video demo (see this page) which shows the site’s numerous other versions.

Or see Robert Scoble’s video below:

http://www.podtech.net/player/podtech-player.swf?bc=e73cfd94c57743b99228a270c5b04812

[Our sync with Outlook didn’t work when we tried. Plaxo makes you download a toolbar for syncing with Outlook, because Outlook resides on you desktop and Plaxo needs a way to access it. While we successfully downloaded the toolbar, Plaxo wasn’t able to complete the synchronization. We assume this is a bug in the initial version. Update: Or perhaps its because we have more than a thousand contacts; though, if that’s the reason, it’s disappointing that Plaxo wouldn’t prompt us to upgrade. We were able to successfully sync with other services though.]

Based on an overview of the service, though, we may start spending more time on Plaxo — and likely less time in Outlook and Gmail. However, there’s one big caution. Once Plaxo is installed, incoming emails in Outlook carry an icon prompting you to add a contact in your address book if they are not already there. You can add with a single click. That’s cool, but then the service asks you if you’d like to message the person for their latest contact info. The default is yes, but you have to click either yes or no to continue; this is something that errs dangerously into Plaxo’s old spamming ways — as it tries to get other people to sign up with Plaxo. When you think about it, this is no different from getting an invite from LinkedIn or Facebook. At least this time, Plaxo is offering a more substantial service when it pings you. The other concern is that Plaxo still asks for more information about you during sign-up than most services, including birthday, full contact information, etc — although you don’t have supply much of it.

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