Friday
Oct142011

Contact info is like a virus

Now that iCloud is out, I’m looking into switching over to it from Google’s services. I’ll definitely continue to use my GMail address and I’ll probably continue to use the GMail web interface, but as Google Contacts and Calendar don’t play as well with my setup, especially my Mac, I’m going to try to switch those over to iCloud.

In preparation for doing so, I decided to take the moment to clean out my contacts list. Lots of duplicate entries, and lots of people that I will never see or contact again. As I got to the ‘L’s , I got to someone I haven’t seen or heard from in over ten years (which, if you’re 24, is a long time). I went to elementary and middle school with them, but they ended up going to a different high school and I never saw the person again. And yet, ten years later, here is their contact info safely ensconced in my Google Contacts.

How this came to be is a little remarkable. It was for my 13th birthday, 11 years ago, that I was able to save up enough money for a Palm m100. I’d been lusting after the devices for quite some time at that point, and getting the device was a very significant moment in my life up to that point. I could regale at length my fond memories of the device, but suffice to say I indended to use every function of the device to its absolute fullest. This included me being an enormous pain and hounding schoolmates and relatives for their contact information, including this one person I mentioned earlier.

Another function of the device was its ability to synchronize and back up to a computer, so naturally I used that feature as often as I could, synchronizing to Palm Desktop and Microsoft Outlook. It was on the latter of which that I first discovered the virus-like nature of contact syncing. For you see, not long after I purchased my Palm, my mother and father bought ones for themselves. This probably had something to do with residing in the same household as someone that could outclass any salesman in persistance and annoyance with regard to touting the advantages of using the device. In any case, I set up my parents to synchronize into the same Microsoft Outlook profile so any information added on one device was replicated to the other.

Through some act of misconfiguration (or so I’m choosing to tell myself at this time) at some point I inadvertently synchronized my Palm with their Outlook profile, and we each got a huge dose of the others’ contacts on our devices. In fact, some of the contacts that I’m pruning from my contacts are the same ones that I got from that unfortunate sync.

But I digress — over the years I went through various devices and computers, each accumulating additional contact baggage synchronized back and forth. Though I can’t say precisely when, at some point I uploaded all my contacts to my Google account and they have remained there since, getting synced down to my iPhones through Google Mobile Sync. The contact database, much like a virus, is capable of attaching to a host (device, computer, or web service) and reproducing itself there.

However, there is one other virus-like quality to the contact database. In order not to burden the story, I have omitted the fact that, on several occasions, I have done the same paring that I’m doing now: I go through, delete all my parents’ work contacts, all the people that I haven’t seen from the 8th grade, etc. And for a while, things are good. Then something happens - a device that hasn’t been connected in a while is connected, or some hiccup is introduced in syncing that causes all the contacts to appear to be new to each party; I can’t say precisely what problem arose when, but the result is invariably the same: the synchronization software, in an abundance of caution, decides that in the event that the synchronization encounters errors, it’s best to be on the safe side it’s best to retain all contact info and require the user to go through at a later date and remove the duplicates or contacts that are no longer desired. Like a virus, contacts you thought you had gotten rid of for good have a nasty habit of turning up again and again.

I hope that iCloud will be a bit smarter about all of this. I suspect it will - it will be Apple software running on Apple hardware communicating with Apple cloud services. This gives Apple the unique advantage to completely controlling the platforms to be synchronized, which should enable them to be smarter and less cautious. But I guess time will tell whether or I’ll turn on my iPhone one day and find the names of the people I went to middle school with again.

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