Cloud Living is the Life for Me #1 – The invincible contact list!

Introduction to the series

Here’s the first of a multi-part series on how simple and realistic it is to start transitioning into cloud-based computing. I tend to be an early adopter of new technologies, and converting to the cloud has been a focus of mine for the last year and a half. In this series, I’m going to go over a wide variety of tools, apps and websites I use to fully decentralize all my important data.

My end goal is to be so integrated with the cloud that I can access all of my information from anywhere on any device imaginable, it’s all backed up offsite, and that all my computers could burst into flames and none of my data would be lost. You’d be surprised how many of these tools, apps and websites are FREE!

This is how Wikipedia defines “cloud computing:”

Cloud computing refers to the use and access of multiple server-based computational resources via a digital network (WAN, Internet connection using the World Wide Web, etc.). Cloud users may access the server resources using a computer, netbook, pad computer, smart phone, or other device. In cloud computing, applications are provided and managed by the cloud server and data is also stored remotely in the cloud configuration. Users do not download and install applications on their own device or computer; all processing and storage is maintained by the cloud server. The on-line services may be offered from a cloud provider or by a private organization.

In short, all your data is stored online and you can access all of it at any time from virtually anywhere. And that is awesome. :)

As I stated before, I’m talking about the specific solutions I use based on my computer usage patterns. Many other solutions may exist, and in many cases some people won’t be able to copy what I do exactly (i.e. owning an iPad, using Google Music, owning the Google Chrome OS laptop, etc), but it’s a short hop and a skip to finding workarounds and substitutions. I am definitely not the end-all be-all authority on the subject… I’m just showing what’s worked so marvelously for me.

Contact lists!

Onto the content! The first part of this series goes over contact list management and how to centralize it and sync to your various devices. My weapon of choice is Google Contacts.

About a year ago, I decided to merge all my contacts into a single access point that I can sync to across all my devices. This is a simple solution to the following annoying situations:

  • I lose a phone. Contact list gone.
  • I buy a new phone. Re-enter entire contact list.
  • I get a call from a number I don’t recognize. It’s a friend whose number I have stored elsewhere, but not in my primary contact list. I don’t answer this unfamiliar number and miss the call.

As it is, my contacts were scattered across my iPhone 3GS, Gmail, Outlook, Plaxo and Facebook. Different bits of data are saved in each location. For example, Facebook has profile pictures, IM contacts, email addresses and so forth. LinkedIn, on the other hand, includes current job information and work email addresses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have all that data in a single location? I hate fractured data! I like neat, tidy, ordered lists of aggregate data. It helps me sleep at night. Instead of sheep, I count sync points as I drift off into slumber. This is why I want to merge all that data into a single system that I can access from anywhere, and that’s set to sync to all of my various wireless devices.

Google Contacts is the Way!

Google Contacts was a clear choice for me. First off, I love Google and virtually everything they offer. For the most part, all their various apps are well-integrated and have always played nice with each other. They’re making such a bold move into the mobile space as well that Google Contacts has full, simple syncing with both iOS and Android devices, among others.

Second, I’ve been a Gmail user since the first beta in early 2004. All of my emails, contacts and other pertinent information already exist within Gmail and its default contacts list, including most-frequently-emailed contacts, profile photos, etc. I already have a solid base of contacts information, and this is perhaps its richest source. It’s going to be a lot easier importing and merging data from other services into Google Contacts than the other way around, I thought. (SPOILER: I was right. ;)

My goal is now clear: Google Contacts is the endpoint of all my contacts data, and now I need to pick which data sources I want to merge into it and whether they have value. Since I’m an unabashed social media whore, I’m on basically everything so I have a lot of options. Here’s the list of services whose data I exported and what kind of data I’ll be getting from it:

  • LinkedIn – Business information such as company affiliation, job title, work emails, work phone, etc
  • Facebook – Personal information such as profile photos, phone numbers, birthdays, email addresses, etc
  • Plaxo – More work information not provided by LinkedIn, including older \ alternate email addresses
  • Microsoft Outlook – Additional work-related information to cross-reference with other data sources

In order to accomplish this, I did some reading for what solutions there are for centralizing all contacts within Google Contacts. Originally, I was going to write the entire how-to guide myself, but to my surprise and pleasure, Drew Sikora from gamedev.net pointed me to a terrific guide that LifeHacker wrote on the same subject. I wish I’d found that first! It’s basically everything I’d already written, minus a step or two.

However, it’s very long on explanation and it’s hard to tell at a glance exactly what to do, so I’m still creating my own version. If you want a full writeup on exactly what Google Contacts is and how every site plays with every other site, definitely read LifeHacker’s guide. But if you just want a quick step-by-step that’s pared-down and streamlined, keep reading.

Step One: Exporting ALL Contacts and Information

Naturally, the first step is to export all your contacts and information from all your various services so you can import them into Google Contacts. The only reason I was even remotely comfortable with this was because Google Contacts has a *very* good Duplicate Checker that’ll merge contacts for you once you pump in all the data. Here were the steps I took to pull all my contact information from everybody everywhere:

  • Facebook!
    First, I installed the open-source Facebook Friend Exporter extension for Google Chrome. From there, go to Facebook and look for the new “Export Friends!” button next to your Home button on the top toolbar. This will walk you through exporting all your friends’ contact details (Name, Emails, Phone numbers, Screen names, Websites, Address, and Birthdays) and save it to your hard drive as a .CSV file, also known as Comma-Separated Values, which is essentially an ordered list many apps can import and easily understand. NOTE: This process will probably take a really long time.
  • Outlook, Yahoo, Hotmail and MSN!
    Google has an extremely simple, straightforward FAQ on exporting contacts data from all of these emails apps\services, and you can find those instructions here.
  • LinkedIn!
    First, I went to the Export LinkedIn contacts page, selected “Microsoft Outlook (.CSV file)” then saved the file to my hard drive.
  • Plaxo!
    Next, I went to the Export Plaxo Contacts page, selected “Microsoft Outlook (.CSV file)” then saved the file to my hard drive.

Once you’re done with that, it’s time to import and integrate all this information! Most of this will be fairly straightforward and automated, but you’ll certainly have to do some manual trimming.

Step Two: Importing Data into Google Contacts

First, go to the Google Contacts website. In the top right corner, you’ll see three text links: “Import, Export and Print”. In this case, you’re looking for “Import”. Click that, and it’ll ask you to choose a CSV file to import with the “Choose File button” Select your first saved .CSV file from above.

For the sake of being neat and orderly, I’d suggest creating a “New Group” from the dropdown menu below the “Choose File button”. If you’re importing Facebook contacts, for example, call that group “Facebook.” Likewise for LinkedIn, Plaxo, Hotmail, etc. This will keep them organized into separate groups so you can filter them more easily as you’re cleaning up, merging and removing duplicates.

When you’re done, you should have an absolutely absurd amount of contacts, many of which are duplicates. Return to the main Google Contacts page, look for the “Find Duplicates” button and click it. Google’s duplicate checker is surprisingly good, but not perfect. You’ll find yourself having to do a fair bit of manual editing, but even that is straightforward. If you click two or more contacts in the contacts list on the left, you can click the “Merge Contacts” button to tidy it up.

Something else worth mentioning that’s quite important is what “My Contacts” means. This list is automatically generated by Google based on who you contact the most, and this is the specific list that will be synced to your mobile devices. It’s very important to select who shows up in My Contacts because nothing sucks more than accidentally importing over 2000 people (in my case) into my phone’s contact list.

Most of the time, for me, My Contacts starts out by default being half full of people that got on there for no readily apparent reason. To remedy this, you can remove people from My Contacts by clicking on their contact, clicking on the “Groups” dropdown above their contact card, and “Remove them from My Contacts”.

Likewise, you can add someone to My Contacts by going to the All Contacts group on the left column, selecting a name, and clicking on the “Move to My Contacts” button next to Groups under the contact card. Conveniently enough, you can make large selections and move them to My Contacts en masse.

After some pruning, trimming and massaging, you should have a very robust and complete contacts list. Now let’s move onto the next step…

Step three: Syncing to devices!

The real value of having a single integrated contacts list is to have it automatically synced to your phone. Fortunately, Google has made this very easy, and you can do it without paying for a service like Apple’s MobileMe. Granted, yes, MobileMe does a lot more than just that, but it is one of their more convenient and notable features that had never been successfully imitated until Google Sync, which I prefer. It’s free, extremely simple to set up, and it also syncs your GMail and Google Calendar in addition to Google Contacts. Perfect!

Google Sync has a list of setup instructions here that tell you how to set up Google Sync for the iPhone \ iPad, Android devices, Blackberries, Windows, Nokia devices, and SyncML (which I admit I’ve never heard of). If you follow that link, it’ll show you how to get it set up completely, and that’s the last thing you have to do in order to sync your contacts with all your devices, all the time.

Step 4: You’re done. Gloat!

Now, all your contacts and their associated information is stored in one place, you’ll NEVER lose them again when you lose or break a phone, you can access the list from anywhere, and if you ever get a new phone you can be re-synced to your contact list in mere seconds.

Barring Google suddenly going out of business and shutting down all their services, your contact list is now effectively INVINCIBLE! It’s also instantly accessible forever, and you really don’t have to go through this process ever again now that you’ve done it once.

Ta-daa!

The next installment of the Cloud Living is the Life for Me series is coming soon…

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