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Phone Books? We Dont Need No Stinkin Phone Books!

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Ed Tittel tells you how to keep track of phone and address book data by either finding a single online location that's accessible from everywhere, or by using some kind of "universal user interface" that works on hand-held devices like PDAs, cell-phones, and PCs alike.
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For those who travel a lot, or who must bounce between a laptop and a desktop computer, staying on top of contact information like phone numbers, e-mail and snail mail addresses, and so forth, can be a real challenge. This can be particularly vexing for those who also use a PDA—requiring the synchronization of two or more sets of data for e-mail, contact, and phone information, be it in the context of a personal information manager (PIM), an e-mail package, or whatever type(s) of software they might use. Some high-tech mavens even deliberately travel without dragging a computer along, and rely on the ubiquitous presence of cybercafes to handle their e-mail and Internet access needs—including access to phone and address books.

Although programs like Outlook or Outlook Express offer pretty adequate phone and address book capabilities, the problem with desktop e-mail packages is that they're location specific. Thus, you must either pick up and grab that database to access it on another device, after stepping through some import maneuvers, then reverse that process when you resume operation on a desktop machine upon your return to the office. Throw in a PDA—and it's quite true that you can download contact databases to most Palm OS based devices pretty easily—and you're in the same boat, only more so.

By now, you're probably wondering how you might sidestep this whole situation. From a technical perspective, one key is to find a single location that's equally accessible from everywhere to store phone and address book data. The other key is to find some kind of "universal user interface" that works on hand-held devices like PDAs, cell-phones, and PCs alike. If this sounds like a job for the Internet, you're absolutely right. Most of the workable solutions that exist to solve the need for universal phone and address book access require an Internet connection and a Web browser (or similar capability), to make phone and address book information accessible with only a few additional mouse or button clicks.

Online Organizers, Anyone?

Although you'll find such systems under interesting names like "netcentric phone book," "global phone diary," "online phonebooks," "e-phonebook services," and so forth, the most useful category name we discovered for this type of service is generally called an online organizer. Quick analysis of numerous products in this sector also indicates that there are two basic kinds of online organizers available for ready use:

  • Personal online organizers: Intended for individual use by a single person. Such online services usually accommodate e-mail addresses, phone books, and surface mail address data. Many also include calendaring and scheduling functions. To a varying extent, users will be able to import existing data from current sources to start up with such services, after which they'll probably choose to update and refresh those databases online.

  • Group or shared online organizers: Intended for multiple use by a group of individuals who need to share common information. This might apply to everyone who works for an entire company, or perhaps only to a single department or workgroup. Not only do such services accommodate e-mail and regular mail address data, phone book entries, and other descriptive information (often aimed at sales support) they also tend to provide shared calendaring and scheduling capabilities, including meeting scheduling, reminders, and calendar management to boot.

If the "personal" versus "group" distinction defines one dimension along which online organizers might be ranked, the "do-it-yourself" versus "outsource" distinction provides another dimension. That is, numerous companies will gladly sell you the necessary server software and infrastructure bits to let your organization run its own shared online organizer environment. (We couldn't find any strictly personal analogs for this, though it would be pretty easy to generate a Web page to present such data on an individual basis). In fact, Microsoft Outlook will support all these functions if an organization chooses to install (or contract for access to) an Exchange e-mail server to present the data to the Internet. On the outsourcing side of this equation, there are numerous companies ready, willing, and able to provide shared online organizer services to companies and organizations willing to pay the necessary installation, set-up, and monthly usage fees involved.

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