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Plaxo Reinvents Itself As 'Switzerland Of Personal Information'

Plaxo released a beta version of its service, which unifies address books and calendars from disparate providers and also allows members to share streams of information with one another.

Plaxo, a company heretofore known solely for its online address book service, is reinventing itself. Its new aim: to be the "Switzerland of personal information," and a sort of central hub for social networking info. A new beta is a good start, but there's still work to be done.

On Monday, the company released a beta version of its service, Plaxo 3.0, which unifies address books and calendars from disparate providers such as Google, Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo, and others and also allows members to share streams of information with one another via a new feature called Plaxo Pulse.

Pulse allows users to share Flickr feeds, Amazon wish lists, and blog posts, potentially giving people continuous streams of information about their contacts. Plaxo hopes to continue adding sources of information that can be shared, like bookmarks and stories from Digg. "It's more than anything else changing the way people think about what we do," said Plaxo marketing VP John McCrea, in an interview. "We're re-entering the social networking market as social networking becomes less about becoming a friend of a friend of a friend and more about being richly connected with your first degree of separation."

By focusing on the Web, Plaxo takes a major step in expanding its potential to succeed. Initially used mostly as an Outlook add-in, Plaxo had added a Web app version, but that has remained secondary to the Outlook plug-in. The newest version flips that model on its head, aiming to make a one-stop shop for up-to-date calendar and contact information (changes to contact information instantly get applied across the Plaxo universe) and a place to see just what contacts are up to.

Plaxo is relatively rare in that it bridges the worlds of consumer services like AOL Instant Messenger and Google's Gmail and the corporate world of Outlook and LinkedIn and gives users two separate sets of contact information, one for home and one for work. Users can choose what home and work info to show and to whom. "Plaxo is the only player that from the beginning has focused on the straddle," said McCrea. "Anyone who wants to go for the big play in social networking needs to recognize that every person lives in multiple worlds."

However, true social networking profile capabilities in the current version are fairly limited beyond the ability to enter contact information and broadcast feeds. Meanwhile, the search feature doesn't look across the entire Plaxo network, searching only a user's own contacts. That severely limits the capability of using Plaxo itself to find new contacts.

Plaxo 3.0 beta also only links up with e-mail lists and business social networking site LinkedIn today, and with no other real social networks. That may soon change, as Plaxo is in the midst of conversations with Facebook. "Our vision and strategy is to sync and share and we want to be that neutral hub in the middle that builds a bridge to everywhere, so we're actively looking for as many different services that we can link up to," McCrea said. The type of connections Plaxo makes with social networking services may deepen as well. While the LinkedIn sync only pulls contact information from LinkedIn, future versions may possibly actively seek out Plaxo contacts in LinkedIn.

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