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New Plaxo puts extra power in data syncing

Plaxo has a somewhat controversial past, but based on my experience with its 3.0 version launched today, it deserves a terrific future.

The original service, which was launched in 2003, was designed to help people keep up with contact information by sending e-mail to friends asking them to update their profiles on Plaxo’s servers so that you would always know their up-to-date phone number, address, e-mail and other particulars.

But the service got a little too carried away by automatically sending out boiler plate invitations or request for contact update information to each member’s entire address book.

Last year Plaxo CEO Ben Golub publicly apologized for “generating acquaintance spam.” Now my mailbox is no longer besieged by Plaxo invitations from people I might not even know.

Enough about Plaxo’s checkered past. Today’s announcement makes Plaxo something that lots of people are going to want to use even if they have no interest in telling the world about their new cell phone number (unless of course it’s an iPhone, in which case they probably will want to brag).

Version 3.0 now lets you synchronize your address book and calendar between your PC or Mac’s address book and online calendars and address books from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL. In addition to supporting Outlook and Outlook Express, it also now supports Mozilla Thunderbird. If you have a compatible phone and service, Plaxo may also be able to synchronize contacts to your mobile phone.

All of this is covered by their free basic service. There is also a $50-a-year premium service that adds synchronization with LinkedIn, automated backup and recovery of your address book, 24/7 phone support, the ability to store more than 1,000 contacts and my favorite, the ability to remove duplicate address, contact, and calendar entries.

For those of us who use both Outlook and Outlook Express as well as Gmail and Google calendar, this is the feature Google should have included in the first place. Google lets you copy your information from your PC but it doesn’t keep it in sync. With Plaxo, any changes you make on your PC, on the Google service or on Plaxo’s Web site are automatically synced with all your other address books.

So now, when I make a single change, it’s automatically reflected not only on my PC but on my Mac and on my accounts at Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Google.

Plaxo is also a good way to synchronize contact and calendar information between multiple computers such as your home and work machines.

Actually, now that I’m using Plaxo, I’m spending less time in the Google calendar and even less time in Outlook because I prefer the way Plaxo’s Web site displays my calendar and address book.

The online calendar, which lets you scroll down to quickly find future events, is easier to use than Outlook. And finding contacts is also very easy. Just start to type in the search box and they pop up almost immediately. There is also a “list view” of your contacts that makes it a cinch to delete them, assign or remove a category, mark a favorite or save to your mobile phone.

All of this works with all your contacts, regardless of whether they are a Plaxo member. If they are also a member, adding and updating contacts is really simple. Just type their e-mail address in Outlook or in Plaxo’s Web interface and, when you click the mouse on another field, Plaxo automatically enters all of their contact information. If they change or update the information, you get it automatically wherever you have synchronized to Plaxo.

When you install Plaxo in Outlook and click on an incoming e-mail, it puts a little icon in the upper right corner that tells you whether or not the contact is in your address book. If not, you can add them with a single click.

Although Plaxo is far more polite than before, you still have to watch out for one thing: When you add someone to your contact list, you get a confirmation and then a message asking if you “would like to ask this person for his or her latest contact info?” The default is yes (Plaxo – if you’re reading this, it really should be no). You do have to press either yes or no, but if you’re not paying attention that person is going to get an e-mail from you.

Maybe that’s OK or maybe it’s not. Personally I want to put some thought into who I want to bother with such questions.

I know some people are going to worry about privacy and that’s always a legitimate concern. Plaxo’s privacy policy is certainly reasonable and includes the promise that “your information will not be shared, sold, or distributed to any third parties (unless required by law),” but that parenthetical phrase is an issue with all companies that maintain your information – your bank, phone company or any other Web service. Your information is accessible to law enforcement, government agencies and litigants who are able to secure legal authority to compel companies to turn it over.

That said, for me at least, the convenience afforded by Plaxo outweighs any risks, especially now that they’ve sworn off spamming people.

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