You’d think they would have figured out by now, but after more than 30 years of personal computing, the industry still has not come up with the ideal address or contact book, today just referred to as Contacts. Despite its importance in our daily life, be it at work or at home, and the fact that it is apparently a simple computer application, Contacts remains a source of headache and frustration in most cases.
If you have ever tried to convert your Contacts from an old phone to a new one, especially if you are changing brands, you know what frustration means. Even without conversion, living with different formats and designs is reason to lose your temper.
Of course one can find perfectly valid excuses for those who develop the software. How do you design a “universal” Contacts app that suits all needs? From those who just need to enter a name and a mobile telephone number to those who want input everything: birthday dates, Skype alias and pets’ favourite dish, not to mention several phone numbers for each contact, the range is huge and the task daunting; a true mission impossible. Some are content with say three or four data fields, others needs tens of them.
Contacts applications are found on most digital devices, in all mobile phones and in computers based on Windows, Android and Macintosh systems, including tablets. Moreover virtually all web-based e-mail and call services (Hotmail, Gmail, Skype, etc...) also provide a Contacts filing system. With full-size computers, one of the most commonly used address book is the one found in Microsoft’s Outlook.
How do all these talk to each other? Because there is constant communication between these digital systems, there is a genuine need to have Contacts apps that understand each other, can use common fields and transfer data, importing and exporting it.
If the Contacts part in simple mobile phones is not very flexible and does not let you do any customisation like adding, removing, rearranging fields or renaming them, all other systems like smartphones, Outlook, web-based services provide a good level of re-design. But each sings its own tune, in its own music key – often a minor key!
Because of the incredible popularity of Android-based smartphones, with Samsung’s stunning Galaxy S3 in the lead, I have heard countless tales of sleepless night spent trying to figure out how to migrate Contacts from an existing system into the new one. In this very case, for example, you can use Gmail’s online Contacts as an intermediary means to update your contacts database and then synchronise it with the smartphone.
Needless to say it does not always work as expected. Sometimes it’s the mobile phone number that is moved in the fixed phone number field, or the e-mail address that vanishes, this despite the fact that Android and Gmail both are Google’s products. Suffice it to read the online forums discussing this issue to realise that there is still a lot of work to do.
Software tools that are supposed to help various Contacts systems to better communicate and exchange information do exist, naturally. First there’s the popular electronic business card format known as vcf of vCard. Whatever your phone or computer system you can always send or receive contact information as vcf or vCard.
There’s also the csv (comma delimited) format that is supposed to provide more compatibility and ways to exchange Contacts information. Use an Excel sheet to enter all Contacts details and then save the file as csv format instead of the default xlsx. It can then be imported in various Contacts apps.
But vCard and csv have limitations. vCard has limited fields and does not offer customisation. As for the csv format you need to be very careful when naming the column headers that will then be understood as fields (First Name, Last Name, E-mail Address, Mobile Number, etc.) otherwise data will not be properly understood by the importing/exporting party. Errors range from lost data to a complete mix up. A deep breath is required here.
Large enterprises and corporate structures use Contacts systems that are more advanced and more complex than what home users and small companies use. These are for instance Lotus Notes, CRM databases or Oracle-designed filing systems. But here too the incompatibility is not a solved problem.