Why are contacts still such a mess

I’m not a particularly organized person. I’m organized where it matters and the rest sort of… decays slowly. Especially physical documents are a mess. I forgot who said it, but someone called it the “first unused surface method of filing.”

The same is true for my computer file systems. Squeaky clean where it matters, total mess where it doesn’t. 

I’m in awe of those people who have everything squared away in an orderly folder structure. I’ve always relied on search. When Spotlight didn’t cut it, grep was my friend. It has saved my butt a number of times. 

One area of my life that reflects this organizational pattern is my address book. It’s perfect for the 100 or so people in my life that I actually reach out to. The rest are emails, randomly scanned business cards, stuff entered by an EA ten years ago, sync’d Facebook contacts, LinkedIn imports, what have you. Over 10,000 contacts.

Back when we were doing Qwerly (now a part of LinkedIn), we thought a lot about contacts sync as a v2. We ended up doing a B2B play that, if we were still doing it, would look a bit like FullContact in Colorado (they’re the ones that bought Mattermark). 

It’s crazy to me that 7 years later, contacts isn’t a solved consumer software problem. Everyone is running around with these partial, out-of-date, redundant databases in their pocket. And they’re the original social network.

vCard is a horrible format for a whole number of reasons. Contacts sync doesn’t work well (ever had the duplicate problems?). Facebook and others don’t really seem to sync down to device well for me (maybe it’s a permissioning issue); everyone is more interested in sucking up contacts and doing God-knows-what on the backend. 

When I think of building contacts consumer software, I think it should be fully decentralized. Everyone should have their own record and permission who gets to see what (name, email, phone number, postal address in increasing level of sensitivity). An app sounds like the right way to do that. 

Then scale it via OAuth to other apps: if you’re in contact with a person in Gmail, call them on the phone, meet them in person as tracked by calendar, prompt a data access permission flow. 

And don’t even think about replacing the address book. Just build it alongside it, without touching the old world. 

The nice thing about contacts, of course, is that you can grow virally (carefully, without spamming the world). 

For some reason every company we have ever seen try to build something like this has failed. I’m not sure why. 

If you are thinking about taking a crack at the problem, talk to the folks who did Bump, Brewster, Plaxo, who are now doing FullContact. I’m sure there’s a wealth of knowledge there.

And then if you are still crazy enough to try this, come talk to me.