Xobni today revealed (to TechCrunch) some plans for a Yahoo Mail version of their product. What they do with email (pulling conversation threads together, exposing who is linked to each other based on who is cc’ed, and some cool analytics features) is the less interesting part, though. What’s most interesting and important about this news is that they have now officially announced their intention to enter the battle to be the place where your unified rich contact list lives.
Plaxo is probably the best known company specifically focusing on that space. They started out as a pure play online contact manager, grown through aggressive spamming, but have overcome that initial stigma to regain a decent reputation (GoodContacts was an early player in this space that never gained the traction of Plaxo and was acquired by Reunion.com a few years ago, before this stuff really started heating up). Their new Plaxo Pulse service integrates the rich contact list with feeds/activity across the web. Hmmm, remind you of something you’ve heard about recently?
Yes, FriendFeed and Socialthing! are two companies who are coming at the space from the social media aggregation side, and currently getting a lot of buzz. These companies focus on pulling together all the information about your friends from various sites – it’s a logical and easy step to aggregate all the profile/contact info here as well. XoopIt is another cool company aggregating information from your friends/contacts. Rather than focus on updates from social media sites, they are starting with a focus on one specific type of information from your contacts – pictures and videos. What’s richer content around a contact than the media they send?
Of course, the most obvious contenders here are the source of much of the data for some of these companies. Facebook, LinkedIn, and the nine zillion other social networks out there that many people already use as a sort of distributed online address book that is always up-to-date since everyone maintains their own account. And those other guys…. Microsoft (access to a couple of contact records via a few users of Outlook/Exchange, Hotmail, and various other services), Yahoo, Google and the other big players always loom large in areas like this. But right now it looks like a bunch of much smaller companies are the ones making the really innovative moves forward in this space.
The biggest question here is whether or not a huge number of people are going to fully cede control/ownership of their address book to some company in the cloud that maintains a walled garden. And I think the answer is no. The winner of this race is going to be the one who provides a set of rich services to aggregate all the information around contacts and keep them updated, but also give the user full control over the list of contacts. That means letting the user export that address book to/from desktop apps, other online services, basically whatever they want to do. With OpenSocial, DataPortability, and other standards/organizations starting to get a lot of buzz, there will be a lot of opportunity for someone to create a rich, distributed contact list service that is totally open. Whoever does that and lets people integrate and access that list from various web services, their email client, their phone, and basically whatever/wherever the user wants will have created a very valuable and useful asset and service. And as central access point for that data, one with huge network effect and user lockin.