Everyone likes to belong, and that is one of the powerful forces of the Internet. Where once your service provider was your identifying online “community,” today there are online social networks such as Second Life (www.secondlife.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com), MySpace (www.myspace.com) and Bebo (www.bebo.com).
What’s a career-minded grown-up to do amid such Internet playgrounds?
That’s where more serious networks such as LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) and Plaxo (www.plaxo.com) come in. They give adults the same kinds of online tools that their children have, allowing them to share contact information and business relationships rather than favourite bands and vacation photos.
Plaxo has been around for some time. But as it spread, it gave business contact networks a bad name with its “viral” software running amok: It took control of your digital address book and emailed networking invitations to everyone on your Christmas-card list as well as your dentist and accountant.
A year ago, the people behind Plaxo decided to ditch the viral aspects and make friends again with the business community. This week, the company came out with software that incorporates networking tools similar to an online, shareable calendar; connections with other content and devices, such as blogs, photos and mobile phones; and free synchronization with rival address and date books such as Yahoo Mail, Outlook and even, for an extra price, LinkedIn.
Version 3.0 is free in its basic iteration—the premium package costs about $50 (Rs2,050) a year—and is available in six more languages: French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and simplified Chinese. Plaxo claims to be the largest and fastest-growing of the networked address-book companies, with 15 million “members” as of a few months ago. It recently joined with the US cable company, Comcast, giving it potential access to another 15 million. Plaxo officials say they are in talks with major Internet access providers in Europe and Japan in pursuit of similar deals.
“Providers around the world are asking the question, should they make their own network address book, or should they outsource that?” said John McCrea, Plaxo vice-president of marketing. “The Comcast deal means there is a precedent for outsourcing, and others will follow.”
Todd Masonis, Plaxo co-founder, said he believed the company had overcome the resentment of users who found their contact lists out of control with earlier versions. “We took a long, hard look at ourselves, apologized, turned off our viral engine and started rewriting the product from the bottom up,” Masonis said.
One of the main features of Version 3.0, which uses a single browser window for addresses, appointments, tasks and notes, is that it offers multidirectional synchronization: Contact and calendar information in your Google, Hotmail, Vista mail, Thunderbird and other accounts gets transferred both ways.
“If I make a change in one place, it automatically gets propagated across all others,” McCrea said.
Another aspect of the company’s new approach is to offer “mashups”, which creatively combine Internet features. One of Plaxo’s mashups is with the Internet phone service JaJa so that, in a single click on a Plaxo contact, you can initiate an online phone call. Another is with Yahoo maps, where one click also gets you directions to an address on your contact list.
A main offering from the latest version is called Plaxo Pulse. It updates your calendar information with the online activities of your contacts— their blog posts, their new photos, additions to their Amazon.com wish list—if both parties choose them to be shared.
Plaxo, LinkedIn and the others are not just for professionals. You can use them to keep track of family and friends, too.
“Although we haven’t always been thought of as social networking in a conventional sense, we are used as a network to keep people up to date on what other people are doing,” McCrea said.
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