Automating My Compute Infrastructure
I woke up this morning thinking about Plaxo and my computer. I’m been thinking lately about the number of manual things that I do that my computer should take care of for me (when I say “my computer”, I mean “my personal computing infrastructure”, which goes well beyond an individual computer at this point and includes four desktop computers, a laptop, server Al servers, a Danger Sidekick, a Windows Media Player, a ton of software, all the data stored at various web-based services, lots of web-based applications automatically doing things for me, several people (including “my IT guy Ross”) – all spread across at least four locations plus all the different places I travel to).
I’ve experienced numerous big advances in this over the years. A relatively recent example that many people can relate to is spam. I used to have to deal with spam manually – now I never see email spam because of Postini which automagically eliminates it all in the background. Email spam is gone from my life – it’s no longer something I have to interact with – whereas before Postini, I probably was manually deleting 200–300 spams a day and now – when I periodically check my spam filter online – it’s well over 1000 a day. I put this in the “magic” category where the solution was a binary experience – one day I had a huge problem, the next day it was gone. I especially notice this when I have to deal with Movable Type spam (both comment and trackback) – this is a “new” problem that hasn’t been solved yet (although tools are starting to appear to address it better).
I realized that in the past year, I’ve introduced a new set of computing tools in my daily life. A lot of this has been driven off of the shift to web-based applications, but RSS and the way that I interact with real time information has changed this as well. As I thought about this, I got aggravated with the number of things that I have to do to simply “interact” with my compute infrastructure. They range from the trivial (manually synchronizing my bookmarks across multiple computers – since I use Firefox, I can use the Bookmark Sync plug in to keep the bookmarks across my four computers synced – but I still have to actually click on Sync when I make a change) to the more complex (dealing with all of the email-based meeting requests that I get – fortunately my assistant Wendy handles much of this, but it is clearly something my compute infrastructure should be smart enough to figure out.)
Twenty years from now the way we interact with our compute infrastructure will be as archaic as it was twenty years ago (when the Apple III and IBM PC AT were the innovation of the day and del c:\*.* was a big scary deal). So – I’ve started to think about how to increase my compute infrastructure to the next level – especially with regard to “automating all the trivial shit that my computer should be smart enough to deal with for me.” I want my compute infrastructure to continually get smarter, do more effective things for me in the background, and free my time up to actually generate “content”.
Contact management is a great example of this. My core contact management database lives on my Exchange server and I access it through Outlook. After years of playing cut and paste from email when I wanted to add a new contact, I finally found a program (Anagram) that effectively sucks contact info out of email and puts it in my Outlook databases. While this was a small step, it saves a huge amount of “stupid time” over the course of the rest of my life.
The concept of a web-based address book synchronizer has been around for a while (we even talked about at it Anyday.com – an online calendar company that I funded in the late 90’s that was bought by Palm in 1999 for $80m and promptly shut down one year later.) Until recently, all the approaches I had ever interacted with caused me more work then they saved as they generated lots of new email (spam). Linkedin is a great example – I’ve got a nice Linkedin profile and plenty of connections, but I’ve gotten minimal personal value out of it at this point and it’s generated hundreds (thousands?) of email I’ve had to deal with (even if dealing with them is as looking at the email and hitting delete). At some point, I blacklisted Linkedin in my spam filter so I don’t have to see the emails and every now and then I go onto Linkedin and interact with it directly, but the value is low, so my interaction is low, etc.
When Plaxo first came out, it had the same problem – it was merely a gigantic spam generator. So – I eventually gave up, deleted it, and wiped out all my Plaxo data. I downloaded version 2 the other day to see if it was any better.
I have 3000 active contacts in my Outlook database. There are probably 500 core contacts that I communicate with regularly, another 500 that are my “house list” for mass emails I send out about various things I’m involved in that I want to invite folks to (and yes – I observe good email hygiene and give people a way to opt out of these things), another 1000 contacts that I know well enough that I’d recognize them if I ran into them on the street but don’t interact regularly, and 1000 randoms that I interact with transactionally.
I was positively stunned with what Plaxo did. After installing it, it connected 300 of my contacts (10% of my database) and automatically updated the information in the background (on the Plaxo servers). It synchronized this data with Outlook/Exchange in the background and kept track of what it did. It was flawless – handling typical thorny sync issues correctly (Outlook on multiple machines connected to the same Exchange data store has a whole series of classic sync issues that anyone that has ever dealt with sync knows about – another example of a “problem” that computer should solve for me that continues to be an issue).
Now – independent of whether or not Plaxo is a good business (there are some clever new “monetization approaches” in version 2) – the software suddenly became part of my compute infrastructure. I’ve had it up and running for a couple of days on two machines and it has settled into the background, doing what I expect, and continuing to help incrementally with managing my contact database. Like Anagram, it’s a relatively small application in the grand scheme of what I do everyday, but has suddenly improved the automation of one of the more annoying things I deal with regulary that adds no fundamental value to how I interact with my computer.