- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

Thomas Marshall, two-term vice president under Woodrow Wilson, is credited with a 1917 utterance: “What this country needs is a really good 5 cent cigar.”

It’s not just the price of cigars that has changed during the past 89 years. If Mr. Marshall were alive today he might say that what this country needs is a really good way to share contact information across various platforms.

Think about it: You have a cell phone, a handheld computer and probably a desktop system. Entering data on each device can be a challenge; doing it three times is a pain. And then there’s the question of data formats: Will your cell phone read your PC’s files, and can your PC keep up with your handheld? It would be great to keep all three in sync, knowing that if a contact is updated in place “a,” that places “b” and “c” would follow immediately, or soon.

After wrestling with this issue for quite some time, I’ve come to a conclusion: We need a common interface and a common home for our contact information. The best answer I’ve come up with, so far, is a Mountain View, Calif., firm named Plaxo, whose service is online at https://www.plaxo.com.

There are two levels of service. Free of charge, Plaxo will store your contact list of up to 1,000 names, automatically update when another Plaxo member on your list changes his data, let you view contacts online and sync among multiple computers. If you use Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, two Windows applications, they will add a custom e-mail signature for you as well as integrate the contact information into the programs.

For $49.95 a year, you can store more than those 1,000 names, search names via your cell phone and send a free e-card when a contact has a birthday. Plaxo will also help you recover your contact information in the case of a computer crash, and your subscription buys you 24-hour technical support.

I have more than 1,500 contacts on my Plaxo list, and every year or so I’ve sent out a short e-mail asking for contact updates. The responses are automatic, and most folks don’t mind helping out. I’ve even renewed a few dormant friendships in this way.

Putting the main list online involved uploading a compatible file from my computer. Plaxo accepts formats including “CSV” and “vCard”, two popular electronic address book formats, as well as the LDAP Data Interchange Format, or LDIF , which is used in some other electronic directories, including those on servers running Netscape software; there are also LDIF tools for Microsoft Exchange servers. Translation: It’s highly likely you can easily move your contacts to Plaxo from your computer.

With an estimated 5 million users of the Plaxo service, odds are good that many of your contacts are already subscribed — did I mention the basic service is free? — so keeping track of people is easier than you think.

If you are on a Windows PC and using Outlook, updating to your desktop is automatic. If you have a way to synchronize that data with a handheld or cell phone, then your job is done. Update, sync, and you are good to go.

Mac users will have to do some of these tasks manually, which means a little more work. But at least Plaxo functions in a Mac environment, a plus.

Plaxo offers a great deal with its free service, and its premium features are impressive. As more people sign up, the better Plaxo will become, making it not only a classic example of “viral” marketing, but a very useful one as well.

• E-mail [email protected] or visit https://www.kellner.us.

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