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Outsourcing saves money, time and business infrastructure.
Open-Xchange, an open-source e-mail and collaboration software maker, has set up a test Web site that allows people to pull in their contact information from various social networking services like LinkedIn and Facebook. The goal of the project is give people a chance to take control of their contacts and put all of their personal and work information in one place. By creating what amounts to a connections clearing house, Open-Xchange wants to spur to new types of networking services. Shifting your Linkedin contacts to, say, your Outlook address book is hardly a novel concept. You can export the contact files from various services today.
Open-Xchange, however, argues that it has a fresh twist on this premise by creating a continuous stream of updating contacts as opposed to doing the occasional bulk transfer. In addition, the company hopes to bring all social networks -– rather than one here and one there -– into the same place. “We will be able to import anything into one format,” said Rafael Laguna de la Vera, the chief executive of Open-Xchange. “We are the Swiss Army knife for social data.” The underlying idea here is that your contacts are your contacts.
Why should LinkedIn, Facebook or any other company put up boundaries for working with your information? And you might as well suck down those address books now before some of these services start charging for access to parts of your contact database, according to Mr. Laguna. In addition, Open-Xchange pitches the idea that separating more personal services like Facebook from business-oriented services like LinkedIn makes little sense in the Internet age. The company compares the current state of social networking affairs to the days when people were cordoned off in their CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL islands rather than running free across the Web. “With HTML and the World Wide Web, a standards layer rose that leveled the playing field for everyone to get on board,” said Jürgen Geck, the chief technology officer at Open-Xchange, who goes by the nickname “Gecko.” “We think there is a need in the social networking market to play on another level and make something similar possible. “Linkedin, Twitter -– no one knows what to do with this yet or how to make money. We want to give people a chance to figure out how.” If you want to test drive the Open-Xchange Web site, you’re in for an underwhelming experience.
The free site can only import LinkedIn and Xing contacts, along with hotel data from Germanplaces.com – a nod to Open-Xchange’s German roots. I have 197 Linkedin connections, and it took about 8 minutes for the online service to grab them all. All you have to do is enter your LinkedIn login information and then the contacts start arriving. Open-Xchange has a smoother service tied to its e-mail and collaboration software, which you can get from hosting providers or run on your own server, if you’re into that type of thing. Clearly, Open-Xchange sees this service as its big play in the collaboration market, where it hopes to offer companies more flexibility than companies like Microsoft, I.B.M. and Cisco Systems, which tend to keep more control over how workers use contacts. Even with its collaboration product, however, Open-Xchange supports a limited number of services.
A Facebook connection, for example, won’t arrive until later this year. But since Open-Xchange relies on an open-source model, it can add services just about as quickly as outside developers create ways to tap into them. The company would also like business software makers like SugarCRM to start feeding their data into the system. “The revolution is that, all of a sudden, the Internet can be a network of intelligent agents, doing work for their users, rather than a place where big commercial interests aim to gather as many users on their platform as possible,” Mr. Geck said. Interestingly, Open-Xchange relies on servers in Switzerland to “scrape” data from the other services. Comparis, a Swiss online price comparison service, has won court cases that protected its right to scour the Web for the best deals on things like health insurance, car insurance and motorbikes, according to Mr. Laguna, who is also on the Comparis board. “They have been sued by at least four companies that said the machine consumption of their data is not allowed,” Mr. Laguna said. “They’ve won all the cases.” The Open-Xchange folks have deep technical knowledge and have as good of a chance as anyone at getting the technology underpinnings right. Mr. Geck, for example, crafted SuSE’s Linux server product, making it a real force in the operating system market.