Google Contacts or MobileMe

I use Google Search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Maps, Google Profile, Google Analytics, and other products owned by Google (YouTube, Panoramio). So, why would a guy like me pay $99 a year for the past two years for MobileMe Contacts? Simple. Google has totally missed the mark when designing their contacts product. Before I elaborate, and in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’m writing about this primarily so that I can get some feedback and suggestions, and maybe, just maybe, make Google Contacts usable before my next MobileMe payment is due in February.

So, what’s wrong with Google Contacts? Here are my problems:

Inconsistent Web Deployment

As I write this, there are three different places to go on the web to view Google Contacts:

The main problem is that while each of the above three links shows my contacts, they function differently. I much prefer the first option above, because it seems the most like a stand-alone contacts app. I don’t want my contacts tied in with any other app. I don’t want Google changing my contacts in any way, though I’ll address this issue more in a minute. I just need a simple URL that allows me to see only my contacts.

Separate First Name and Last Name Fields

Google seems to think that names should just be entered in one field. The first two links above each show a single name field. However, when viewing contacts in the Gmail interface (the 3rd link above) it does indeed have separate first and last name fields. I don’t understand the inconsistency. And it makes me nervous to use Google’s product if they don’t understand this.

Gmail Interface

It seems that recent changes to Google’s Contacts have been made but only in the Gmail Interface. So I guess I’ll focus there. First and foremost, I don’t like all the extraneous crap on the page. When I’m looking at my contacts, Google also has other stuff like Gmail, tasks and chat. I don’t want all that unnecessary stuff taking up valuable real estate. Contacts only please. MobileMe does it right in this regard.

Gmail Settings

While viewing my contacts, when I click on “Settings”, I get Gmail settings, not Contacts settings. Confused.

Automatic Adding of Contacts

Google keeps adding contacts automatically. I just don’t want anyone making any changes to my data except me (a key reason why Plaxo is not an option). If I send an e-mail, Google adds the recipient’s name to my contacts. This is all wrong. Just let me maintain my own contacts.

Extraneous Groups

Google forces me to have three groups named “Friends”, “Family” and “Coworkers”, even if I don’t want them. I can’t rename them. I can’t delete them. I just want to enter my own groups. And there are other groups as well named “My Contacts”, “Most Contacted”, and “Other Contacts”. Again, I don’t want these. I don’t need them. What’s most troubling is that Google’s help fails to explain why they feel they need to do this. Why can’t we all just enter the groups that we want? Why must Google try to tell us what we need? MobileMe does it right in this regard.

No 3-Column Format

When viewing and managing my contacts, I like a simple 3-column format. The left column should have a list of groups. When I click a group, the names of all contacts in that group should be listed in the middle column. When I click on a name, that contact’s details should appear in the right column. This is a very simple-to-use format. The main feature it gives me is that while I’m viewing one contact’s details, I can still see the list of contacts, and in one click I can be viewing the details of another contact. Google’s interface forces me to keep going back and forth and back and forth when I need to view the details of several contacts. Additionally, in the list of contacts, they use a paging feature, so again, I have to use numerous clicks to see all contacts, instead of just putting them all in a single list. MobileMe does it right in this regard.

MobileMe

So why don’t I just keep using MobileMe? Well, it has its flaws too. The screen frequently flickers and the entire browser window refreshes ALL THE TIME. And it doesn’t refresh quickly, so I frequently find myself waiting to see my contact info.

It constantly gives me errors. When I’m editing a contact and adding a photo, MobileMe will tell me that the update failed and I should try again. When that happens, sometimes the update actually did succeed while other times it really does fail.

The sync mechanism is also pretty messed up. My needs are simple in this regard. I want to maintain my contacts on a web site, and sync those contacts via wifi to my iPod Touch. If you’re a MobileMe user, you’ll probably say, “yes, that’s all supported, what’s the problem?” The problem is that in order to do what I want, Apple requires that you also sync with a computer. And since I’m a Windows user, they want me to use Outlook. I wouldn’t use Outlook if you paid me. I was quite surprised to hear about this requirement.

My contacts stopped syncing with my iPod Touch two weeks ago. I finally did a live chat with Apple on Oct 19. And in that chat, the support person said, “our system requirements to sync with MobileMe are that you sync with a computer, otherwise your syncing will fail, like it is doing right now. So you must sync with a computer.” Here’s the chat transcript if you’re interested.

The other idiosyncrasy with syncing is that they also require you to reset your sync data regularly. This is a simple process of blowing away all your contacts data on their web site, and re-uploading the data from Outlook to their server. There are two problems with this. First, all of my correct contact data is on the MobileMe site. So if I were to blow away that data and re-sync it with Outlook, MobileMe would now have inaccurate data. It just doesn’t make sense. Second, they actually require me to reset the sync data like this in order to prevent problems with the wifi sync of my iPod Touch. This is just ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense. If you read the above transcript, you’ll see that the support person said, “You simply just need to reset your sync data up to the server from your PC that has the updated Contact information. You are actually meant to do this about once every month or 2 to keep a regular sync going without any issues.” It’s unbelievable.

The last issue with MobileMe is that it costs $99/year. I don’t use their e-mail, calendar or any other feature. Only the contacts. To be clear, I don’t consider this a flaw. Obviously, I’m willing to pay for a solution that suits me. But if I’m paying, then I expect it to work. And when it doesn’t work, I expect reasonable support. My experience with the syncing problem and the support I received has now got me re-thinking my contacts solution.

I should also mention that I tried using MobileMe with the Safari browser. I figured that maybe Apple’s web site would work better with their own browser. No such luck.

Now What?

So now I have to figure out what to do. I should also mention that I’ve tried Yahoo Contacts as well. This was a year or two ago, and all I recall is that I didn’t like it.  I need a contacts solution that works. I want to maintain my contacts on the web, and sync to my iPod Touch. And it seems that the two major solutions I’m considering, MobileMe and Google, both have problems. So I may end up just using the one with fewer problems. This is not a good position to be in while I’m paying $99. And this brings me to my re-consideration of Google Contacts.

My MobileMe contract renews on February 21, 2011, so I have some time but I’d like to resolve it now. I would greatly appreciate any feedback you have to resolve the issues I’ve described. Please leave your comments.

UPDATE: Wed 28-Oct-2010

I’ve spent the last few days trying to setup Google Contacts. I was forced to import from a CSV file I created from Windows Address Book, even though my most accurate data is on MobileMe. So I’m already starting without the best data, but I’m trying hard to save $99/year.

I had three problems with the import:

1) The group memberships did not make it into Google Contacts. I have 1,300 contacts and they are now all in a single group. Fine. I’ll manually edit 1,300 contacts.

2) Due to the nature of CSV files, many of the notes I had in dozens of contacts didn’t make it through the import. Fine, I’ll manually fix those.

3) For the contacts where the company name is the primary name, the data is pretty messed up. Google put the company name in the first name field as well as in the company name field. So I have to remove all those first names now.

I also discovered two new problems with Google Contacts after the import:

1) If I have a contact with a company named “Acme Company” and a first name of “Bob” entered, Google lists it alphabetically as “Bob”. And if I have a last name of “Smith”, then it’s listed by “Smith” and not the company. I need to have the option of listing by company name or the person’s name.

Some research led me to the “File As” field. So for this example, I entered “Acme Company – Smith, Bob” in the “File As” field. This makes the entry sort properly in the list. But there are two problems with this.

  1. These names now exist twice in the record. I have to enter names in their proper name fields, as well as in the File As field. This is not good database design. MobileMe allows you to simply select whether you want the record listed by person’s name or company name (so you only enter the names once).
  2. When I click on the e-mail address to send a new e-mail, the To field in the e-mail is “Acme Company – Smith, Bob <bob.smith@acmecompany.com>”. That’s just wrong. The To field should be simply “Bob Smith <bob.smith@acmecompany.com>”. So, Google is also using the “File As” field as an “email” field. Here’s a related forum thread.

2) As I go through all my contacts and assign them to the proper groups, the groups are not syncing to my iPod Touch. Instead, all contacts are in a single list, no groups at all. I can’t stress how ridiculous this is! When I am away from my home or office, and I need to do a quick lookup of a contact, having my groups available to me is essential. Here’s a related forum thread.

I’m still trying to keep an open mind (though all evidence says I should do otherwise). Several people have recommended Google Contacts to me, so I’m hoping some of those same people can respond to these issues and provide some feedback.

UPDATE: Tue 15-Feb-2011

I reached a simple solution. Both Google Contacts and MobileMe have their problems. Neither is the ideal solution. So I figure if I’m gonna have problems, I’d rather not have to pay for them. My MobileMe subscription expires shortly.

Comments 3

  • I understand the simple usability issues and labels that you would like to have removed. I think there is just a trade off with Google contact manager service. The main reason I would have to recommend Google Contacts is it’s ability to sync on the go. This feature was allowed me to sync seven plus devices. My laptop, address book (Mac), Thunderbird, address book (Mac and Windows), iTouch, iPad and of course my Android phone.

    My main methods for updating is to use the webiste interface or edit on my mobile phone. From here all device will eventually get the updated contact information.

    I hit plugging in my device to sync and that is one reason why I stopped using my iPhone as a phone.

  • This was a cool blog entry Scott, i know the delima you’re going through. I believe MobileMe is worth it. There is a common confusion about resetting your sync data, you don’t need to reset your sync data every 1-2 months, but it just depends on how often you’re updating / syncing your contacts, so if you’re not using your contacts a lot or updating a lot you can probably go 6-9 months without a reset.I’ve been a MobileMe user for going on 2 years now. I too use a PC to sync with MobileMe and rather than using Outlook, i use Windows Address Book to sync my Contacts which works great. It is a system requirement to use Outlook though Windows Address Book can be used as well.

    If you were to set up your sync between your PC and MobileMe / iOS device initially correctly and have it be in sync, you would be able to regulalry reset your sync data up to MobileMe to prevent any issues from ever occurring, that includes data loss or inconsistencies with sync data.

    Don’t hesitate to IM me on AIM with any questions, i’m a very avid user of MobileMe and do feel i know the ins and outs to syncing correctly (I sync my Contacts, Bookmarks & Calendars) and haven’t had any issues in a very long time because of the steps i take.

    Take care!
    Peter – AIM: youresopuuunk

  • I can appreciate your frustrations with MobileMe and Apple chat support. Your post prompted my to share my experiences with MobileMe and Apple support.

    In my experience, it is not necessary to sync the iPhone contacts to any PC/Mac machine. It works fine with the iPhone syncing directly to the MobileMe cloud. This is what I have been doing since the first iPhone came out. I’m on my third iPhone now.

    I have the same situation, I only want one set of contacts. Both synced on my iPhone and MobileMe. iPhone MobileMe. As you stated, there is no reason to use another mail app on a PC or Mac.

    I have never had to sync to Outlook or Window Mail or any other mail application. It syncs almost immediately using either WiFi or 3G. Enter a contact on the iPhone, it is on MobileMe usually in less than a minute. Same for MobileMe -> iPhone

    I did have a similar issue with duplicate contact and some data from one contact ending up in another contact. Only happened a couple times.

    Once I synced to the MobileMe cloud and ended up with duplicate contacts. Not a big problem for me as I only had 104 contacts. Made some minor corrections, and deleted the dups and outdated groups. But this would be very inconvenient for 1300 contacts.

    I too went to the Apple chat help and I was told the same thing – you must sync with another PC/Mac based mail app, and then back to the iPhone, and eventually back to the MobileMe cloud. I’m not sure what I finally did that night (trial and error) but I did get it fixed without having to sync to my PC.

    I agree, the MobileMe site is very slow and unpredictable. It has strange bugs that I can reproduce. And it often crashes or becomes unresponsive on both Firefox and Safari.

    I had the MobileMe Control Panel app crash. So I uninstalled all Apple software, MobileMe, iTunes, QuickTime, and Safari. Then Install all the latest versions.

    But I keep using it for the simple fact that the sync, in general, does work well. And I don’t need to sync to a PC. Still not what we are paying $99 a year for.

    Check out these pages from Apple’s own “Syncing overview” site.

    Overview: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mmfc1670c1
    How syncing works: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mm5b08c671
    Set up syncing: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mmfc166fd6
    Sync: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mm5b08cd31
    Turn off syncing: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mm5b08c73b
    Troubleshooting: http://help.apple.com/mobileme/index.html?lang=en#mm1ab70ed4

    For “Set up syncing” please note this paragraph:
    To set up MobileMe syncing on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch:
    1. Tap Settings on your device’s Home screen.
    2. Tap Mail, Contacts, Calendars.
    3. Make sure Push is selected as the setting for Fetch New Data.
    If Push isn’t selected, tap Fetch New Data and tap the Push switch to ON.
    4. Tap MobileMe.
    If you haven’t already set up your MobileMe Paid Subscription on your device, enter your full name and sign in using your MobileMe subscriber name and password.
    5. Turn on the types of information you want to sync.
    Your device can sync with Mac or Windows computers. Syncing happens wirelessly via Wi-Fi or mobile Internet, so your device doesn’t need to be connected to your computer with a cable.

    Thanks
    James