Skydeck is trying to help you make sense of your phone bills, and more generally, how you use your phone. It collects data from within your mobile phone bill, like who you make calls to and who calls you, and how long you talk to each person, and presents this information to you in a simple interface that lets you do things like organize your contacts and see who you talk to the most.
This is a strike against all of the major carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — who intentionally obfuscate your usage data in order to nickel-and-dime you with overage charges and others fees.
In order to use Skydeck, you first need to use the Firefox web browser, then install the free Skydeck plugin (pictured). During the installation process, you give Skydeck your online username and password from your carrier, which gives Skydeck access to your phone bill data. Then, every time you open Firefox, the Skydeck plugin scrapes your data from the carrier’s site and shows you how many minutes and text messages you have remaining on your phone plan.
The Skydeck site, meanwhile, stores all of your past phone bills and lets you extract social information — you can sort by who you talk to the most, who talks to you, etc. The Skydeck site also lets you import your address books from webmail services like Yahoo Mail or Gmail, and from Outlook or the Mac Address Book, so you can pair people you call and people you email — merging separate address books for one person into a single identity for them. You can also tag calls, which is a way to clearly separate your personal and business calls — useful for getting expense reimbursements from your employer or the IRS.
San Mateo, Calif.-based Skydeck is taking a pro-consumer direction within a notoriously anti-consumer industry. In that sense, it resembles personal finance sites like Mint, Wesabe, Buxfer and others, which let you extract and analyze your financial data in ways that banks don’t offer. On the other hand, Skydeck is also trying to help you be more efficient about who you spend your time talking to, somewhat like email analysis company Xobni.
So Skydeck launched in private beta on Monday, with some promise, but when I tested it out, I ran into — unsurprisingly — the structural problems of the telecom industry as well as the generally difficulty of syncing lots address book data.
I don’t have many phone numbers stored in my email address book, so in order for Skydeck to pair that information with my phone bill information, I needed to manually pair every phone number extracted from my phone bill to Skydeck with every contact from my email address book. Of course, I can’t get a copy of my actual address book in my phone because Sprint, my newly-former carrier, will only print me out a list of my hundreds of phone contacts. It won’t give me a digital file that I can import into other programs.
Note: Not being one for manual labor, I tried to do an end-run around Sprint by exporting my address book directly from my Palm smartphone. But the phone’s Bluetooth capability turned out to be broken, so I couldn’t even make a connection between it and my computer. My address book was stuck on my Palm. That was really the last straw — I’ve been having lots of problems with Palm’s software, anyway, and a bad case of iPhone envy.
So instead of writing this article on Monday, I went out and finally bought an iPhone (and switched to AT&T), then effortlessly imported my email contacts from Gmail into the Mac Address Book and synced it with my new phone. Now, when people call me, I can easily match their numbers with their existing identities that I imported from email.
And that’s the difficulty that Skydeck is going to face. It is fighting carriers that want to keep their users in the dark so they can keep ripping them off. It is fighting phone manufacturers like Palm, which have a terrible track record for developing usable software.
Skydeck, as is, is a great way to easily track your current phone usage. The company’s intention — and my hope — is that it will keep improving the amount of things that you can do with the data it scrapes together. It is looking at offering an application programming interface, so third-party developers can pair its data with other information on their own applications. It also wants to do what Apple already can — let you create a comprehensive address book that you can see on your phone.
The company has raised around $1 million from a group of angel investors, including personal investments from the principals of i-Hatch Ventures.