Gmail Contacts finally becomes useful

Image representing Gmail as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

If you’re a Gmail user like me, 2008 seemed like a lost year.  Google did give us the Google Labs features, many of which were nice tweaks, but there wasn’t a significant improvement to the core application.  2009, as you know has been quite different.  We’ve seen the addition of many significant features, with offline sync being the most important.  Google added another ‘missing link’ in the communications hub with a task manager, which in its current state is a bit underpowered – but we can always hope for improvements.

One of the most frustrating parts of Gmail’s communications hub has been Contacts.  When first introduced (I believe last year), Contacts seemed to add all sorts of random contacts from inbound emails that I received.  When I dug around to find where they were coming from, many of these new ‘contacts’ were plucked out of emails that had large lists of people attached to them.  Most of these folks weren’t really my contacts, but Google thought they were.  This was just one of many frustrations I had with Google Contacts.  Just as with the core Gmail application, however, Google has begun to remedy shortcomings in Contacts in 2009.  A few days ago, Google announced true Contact (and Calendar) syncing with many smartphones.  Along with that announcement has come a steady set of changes to Google Contacts.  Today, Google has added four more, very significant, improvements to the Contacts function.  Here are two of my favorites:

Official Gmail Blog: Four changes to Gmail contacts

3. Remove people from My Contacts
You can finally move contacts out of the My Contacts group — especially useful if you’re planning to sync your contact list to your phone. Prune the contacts you don’t want synced to your phone from My Contacts (click “Groups” and then “Remove from My Contacts”), and they won’t get synced.

4. Search across all contact fields
We’ve heard you loud and clear, and contact search now works much better: instead of just searching contact names and email addresses, it now includes phone numbers, notes fields, and mailing addresses as well. So, if you’re visiting the Bay Area and looking for friends to catch up with, you could try typing “650” or “415” in the contact manager search box.

Contacts, it seems, are finally becoming useful. Along with the Activesync feature that went live a few days ago, I can finally consolidate my contact information to a single source and not have to maintain a separate list for my iPhone and Gmail. This is great news!

Now, make Google Contacts (and Gmail) an interaction hub
Contacts would become substantially more powerful if I could see my entire relationship with a contact in that view.  Google lets you query recent emails interactions with a selected contact, but we know that entire relationships aren’t captured in emails.  I’d like the ability to add date stamped notes to each contact – so I can record other interactions with people.  I’d also like the ability to connect Google Calendar events to contacts.  And, while you’re at it, connect tasks associated with contacts as well.

So far, 2009 has been a busy year for the Gmail team, and it looks like we’ll see a steady pace of improvements for Gmail.  Hopefully, they see the value of extending Contacts beyond a simple electronic Rolodex and into a powerful contact interaction hub where users can truly capture many aspects of their relationships with their friends and contacts.

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Hey Amazon, it’s time to socialize the Kindle

Image by MARQUINAM via Flickr

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, mostly on my Amazon Kindle.  I think it’s a great device in its current form, an will no doubt get better with the refresh that’s due out next week.  As an electronic book reader, the Kindle is definitely the leader of the pack.  All of the launch time reviews correctly stated that there is no eye strain, and I often forget that I’m using an electronic device (that’s a good thing).  Having multiple books in one compact device makes it possible to jumble my reading interests, without adding bulk to my backpack (I usually read 2-3 books at once, and often move between a business book, fiction, and/or current events stuff).  An added benefit for Amazon is that I’ve ended up buying books, literally, as they were mentioned in a meeting or on a TV show.  That’s another part of the puzzle that Amazon got right, a low friction transaction.  The first generation Kindle defined a market, in many ways, like the first generation iPod did.  And, based on the early, leaked photographs of the Gen.2 model, it looks like Amazon will address some of the awkward design elements of the initial offering.  While most of the coverage on Monday will be focused on the hardware, I’ll be really interested learning what Jeff Bezos and Co. have in store for the software part of the Kindle upgrade.

Reading has always been about community
I’ve found that I learn a whole lot more about a book’s meaning if I can share my thoughts and ideas with others.  I’m not really into book clubs, but Amazon does have a unique opportunity to extend the reading experience into a community experience with the Kindle.  The current generation software of the Kindle allows me to electronically annotate excerpts.  Sometimes I simply highlight interesting passages that I want to go back to, other times I’ll add a note that serves as a reminder to dig deeper into an area or ask another question.  Given the Kindle’s wispernet wireless connection, wouldn’t it make sense to connect those notes about books to a larger community?  I’m just wrapping up David Sanger’s The Inheritance, and I’ve got a ton of notes and comments that I’d love to share with other readers.  Shouldn’t each Kindle book have a ‘community’ wrapped around it?  In the case Sanger’s book, which is related to current events, the author could engage in that community and extend usefulness of his book.  For readers, instead of static reviews of a book on Amazon’s website, we’d have a dynamic community to share ideas with, argue or get deeper insight from the author.  I understand that Amazon doesn’t want the Kindle to become a ‘free’ way to connect to the internet, but wispernet could feed my notes and highlighted sections to a section of the book’s page online, and then I could continue the conversation via my computer connection.  This is one feature I’m really hoping Amazon announces on Monday…and they allow us first generation Kindle users to upgrade our software to enable this community.

Books are meant to be shared
The beauty of a physical book is that it can be shared, resold, or passed along to just about anybody without much difficulty.  As DRM slowly slips away in the music business, Amazon needs to define a reasonable model to- at minimum – resell books that I no longer want.  I believe there is a compelling reason for publishers to want a resale market to exist as well.  Unlike the aftermarket for traditional books, a market mechanism could be setup whereby publishers would get additional royalties for a resold book.  Amazon would benefit as a clearinghouse, and it would also drop another barrier for me (or anyone) to buy some ‘one-time use’ books.  For example, I’ve been hesitant to spend a lot on fiction on my Kindle.  Maybe it’s just me, but most fiction I’ll read once, and then pass it along to someone, or resell it (sometimes on Amazon’s website).  If I knew that there were a reliable aftermarket where I could resell these books, I’d be willing to buy them more often.

These are just two developments I’m hoping to see on Monday.  The Kindle is a revolutionary device.  It’s now time for Amazon to evolve the ecosystem around the device and extend the usefulness of their revolutionary product.  Amazon, it’s time to socialize the Kindle.

UPDATE: I just noticed that Amazon has hinted at the need to extend the kindle format to smartphones.  While this may be another market to chase, I can’t imagine doing extensive book reading on my iPhone.  Now, if Amazon modifies it’s DRM mechanism so I can use the same license on both my Kindle and my iPhone, I’d find it useful for those times when the Kindle isn’t in my bag.  My iPhone is always with me.

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Wired’s story on the secret development of the iPhone

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It’s been a year since Apple unveiled it’s iPhone, which is considered by many to be a revolutionary device.  While that may be true, the greater revolution came from the manner in which the phone was developed and the equation altering manufacturer – carrier relationship that it left in it’s wake.  Wired has done an excellent write up on the process, it’s challenges, and the underlying gamble that Steve Jobs took with the iPhone.  The article starts out appropriately enough:

It was a late morning in the fall of 2006. Almost a year earlier, Steve Jobs had tasked about 200 of Apple’s top engineers with creating the iPhone. Yet here, in Apple’s boardroom, it was clear that the prototype was still a disaster. It wasn’t just buggy, it flat-out didn’t work. The phone dropped calls constantly, the battery stopped charging before it was full, data and applications routinely became corrupted and unusable. The list of problems seemed endless. At the end of the demo, Jobs fixed the dozen or so people in the room with a level stare and said, “We don’t have a product yet.”

It’s hard to imagine many corporations today that would have a boardroom full of people that would tolerate that bit of news from their CEO.  But then again, this is Apple that we are talking about.  Very interesting read, and well written as well.

Read the rest of the story here: The Untold Story: How the iPhone Blew Up the Wireless Industry