Fun With iPhone Contacts & Address Book

Fun With iPhone Contacts & Address Book 1

I’ve had Apple’s program Address Book sitting on my Macs for years, and in all honesty, I’ve barely used it. As useful as it may have been in concept, I’ve never found the need to manage my lists of friends, family, and business contacts like my iTunes library. Who needs such lists, or wants to spend all the time updating those details as they change? And why did Apple have to keep all the Address Book stuff separate from the program it most benefits, Mail? For once, Microsoft seemed to have the right idea with its more integrated Outlook contacts system.

Fun With iPhone Contacts & Address Book 2

The point at which I began to realize small benefits from Address Book was when I became a serious iChat user: creating contacts meant that my Buddy List started to look like a list of names rather than AIM and .Mac accounts. But until the iPhone’s release was imminent, I was pretty content not to update Address Book or, generally, care about contacts. Being able to store them in the iPod had never really been important to me, because they were at best a passive reference, and not useful for anything. Apple’s widely publicized “get ready for iPhone” e-mail was a really smart way to let people know that contacts were about to become important, and soon.


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Over the last month, and because the iPhone more or less depends upon them, Address Book and contacts have become nearly critical parts of my daily existence, and some of the application’s subtle brilliance—its ease of use, clean organization of information, and ability to manage contact photographs or icons—has become apparent. I decided this was worth writing about when I started to have an unusual experience with friends who weren’t computer nerds: in order to build up our databases, we’ve started to trade contacts almost like baseball cards, rather than trying to create them all from scratch.


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What’s cool about Address Book is that a contact, once created, becomes an open format virtual Rolodex card that can be dragged and dropped into an e-mail message or an iChat session for immediate transfer. A friend who just got an iPhone was planning to type in my phone numbers; instead, I just dragged my card over to the Buddy List and dropped it on his name. Similarly, my wife had much better contact details for her side of our family than I did, complete with mailing addresses, birthdays, multiple phone numbers, and even photographs. She gathered up her contacts and e-mailed them to me. Done.


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Thanks to iTunes and some other software Apple has either developed or encouraged, iPhone has a couple of neat and not especially well discussed ways of dealing with contacts. The friend I previously mentioned just bought a MacBook before getting his iPhone, and was still in the process of transitioning his old contacts from a PC—specifically, AOL software—to his Mac. A few hours after setting up his iPhone, he told me he had found it easier to import his AOL contacts directly to the phone with AOL Service Assistant (“zero steps” after that, he told me) than to use Bluetooth to transfer his old cell phone’s contacts to the Mac. PC users will find that iTunes actually does a good job of bringing over contacts from other programs, too. My friend’s biggest complaint was that he needed to add more detail to those contacts once they were transferred. Join the club.


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iPhone also respects Address Book’s categorization of contacts. When I realized that my list was getting much too long to conveniently scroll through, I went into Address Book and created a bunch of smaller, sorted categories, guessing that—like many phones—iPhone would not even recognize them. Wrong: the next time I synced iPhone, the categories (“Groups”) were there, and I now had shorter, easier lists to scroll through, as well as Apple’s more obvious shortcuts (Favorites and Recents).

What’s odd about all this is that I actually sort of enjoy playing with Address Book contacts now. I want to have complete information so that I can easily call someone, e-mail them, or get quick directions to their addresses through Google Maps. It’s also great to have some high-resolution, screen-filling contact photography so that I see more than just a little icon when they call me. Meanwhile, Address Book has been sitting on the Mac for years with all this cool stuff built in, and based on my experience, I don’t think it’s as well known or widely used as it could or should be.


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Having said that, I still think that Microsoft’s approach with Outlook (and Entourage) integration for contact creation and management makes some sense. I actually used to use Outlook contacts back in my business PC days, because the feature was sitting right there in a program I used all the time for mail. Having to load up a separate application, as simple as that may be, just didn’t make sense. And contact information is a lot easier to build gradually, say, starting with an e-mail or AIM address you’re typing in to your mail program or iChat, than by sitting down and creating a complete entry. Apple’s already nailed the holistic value of contacts by making Address Book data useful in multiple applications; now it just needs to make them as easy to create as they are to access once created.

  1. I had no idea I could group contacts like that! Great tip.

    Another thing I like about Address Book and the iPhone is that you can create custom labels for everything. So if a friend has a sidekick and a cell phone, you can label them as such rather than be limited only to the standard mobile, home, and work.

  2. I guess after all these years I’m gonna give Address Book a good try as well. My biggest complain about Address Book though is that it’s not linked up with a calendar program, and that’s why I’m still using my old old calendar program for a Palm device that I no longer even own. As for Apple’s own iCal, I tried to use it and tried to like it, but after some effort, I come to realize that it’s just not very well designed. So I quit using that and went back to my old Palm calendar. Suggestions?

  3. I’m not sure what mchang meant by the address book not being linked to the calendar program? It is true that they are two separate programs, but they are both integrated completely. Birthday’s entered into the address book automatically show up on the Calendar. Also, you can drag and drop a persons name to the calendar to create an event.

  4. @RW/MChang: You may need to check the “Show Birthdays calendar” option in iCal’s preferences to have the birthdays show up (not sure if this is the default or not).

    @Jeremy: If you click on an email address in the To/From/CC header fields of an email in, there is an option to add that person to Address Book. So if you are using both Mail and Address Book (which many iPhone users are, since those work the best with it), you might find that there’s better integration between the two than you think. Not perfect, certainly, but not quite as bad as the article’s conclusion might lead you to believe, either.

  5. It makes perfect sense to keep the Address Book program separate from the Mail program, because not everyone always needs both at the same time. Plenty of people live their whole lives in web-based email (or Outlook via Parallels) and never open a Mail window.

    Anyway, I don’t have an iPhone, but I have my whole life in Address Book — friends, school contacts, local businesses organized by city and neighborhood (“Pg-Dt-Courthouse” means “Pittsburgh, Downtown, Courthouse”) with hours of operation in the notes section. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have hours of operation in my address book… no more being afraid to leave the hose at 6 for fear that whatever store will be closed already. I use iSync to get everything on and off my phone (Sony Ericsson that I was paid $100 to take)

  6. My favourite aspects of Address book are the separate and relatively stable database and the easy backup. I have 1000+ contacts and to be able to back them up (File/Backup Address Book) and to revert to the backed up copy has saved my bacon more than once, especially when syncing with my razr.

  7. the biggest bummer about the address book and the iphone is that the smart folders seem not to be supported. I hope you can prove me wrong but…. all contacts is a bummer because the search function is ONLY at the top. When you have 600 + records its a waste of time to find the search tool. So the next best thing is folders but this is all manual and what’s worse is you cant sort in the iphone. That leaves smart folders. Here you could sort by applying the right tag… assuming smart folders were supported by the phone… which so far I have found they don’t synch. I need this fixed or a new tool. the heart of the phone is the contacts.

  8. When I connect my iPhone to my PC, iTunes allows me to sync everything it has options for. But groups is grayed out. How can I enable groups in iTunes?

  9. Hello, I had the same problem to enables group in Itunes with outlook 2003 but it is easy to solve. Problem is due to the fact that for Itunes a group corresponds to a sub-folder in the outlook contact folder. So if you want to manage your contacts through groups in your iphone, you have first to organize your contacts with contact subfolders. Itunes does not regonize groupping only based on fields (such as company for example) or catégories.
    Hope it helps

  10. Ha hah 😛
    I’ve been using Address Book years before iPhone arrival – for example because of… it’s great integration with Mail! Jeremy is wrong – these programs are just simply made to cooperate. Haven’t You ever noticed that You can just enter 2-3 starting letters of name, surname or email in address field in Mail Application and it instantly shows You All matches from Address Book??? That’s not all – if you’ve added the photos to Your conatacts – their miniatures will show in the top-right corner of every message You received form them in Mail 🙂 May not sound like great improvement, but if You try it – You’ll definitely like it!
    Greets, Mac_Abra

  11. #12: You missed the point. It’s not that the programs weren’t made to cooperate — they obviously were — but that they were separate standalone applications that need to be loaded individually rather than all accessed from the same central hub. If iTunes was music only, leaving videos to QuickTime, contacts to iSync, apps to a different program, etc., the same comment would apply.

  12. At he bottom of my Contacts list, occasionally a name slips to the bottom of the list with the pound sign in its “header” (the bar where the letter of the alphabet sits in the list above it). I cancel the entry, add it anew to Contacts and it ends up under the appropriate eletter – until it happens again. Can anybody tell me how to prevent this? Thanks!

  13. I have problem with iphone contacts. It is not very easy to find a name if you searching your catalog of your contacts. The scroll is very nice but is not very practical and fast to identify your contact of your interest.

  14. I agree with the iPhone users above that the Contacts interface is terrible for finding a contact in a long contact list. Scrolling through pages of contacts to get to the search is bad enough, but the search line is so small it is hard to tap accurately as well. Does anyone know of a fix?

  15. Sorry to say but with many contacts in an address book I can find an address 100X faster using my 10 year old Palm Pilot.

    The iTouch has many great features but it was not designed as a business tool.

  16. When I try and upload all of my contacts, it makes multiple entries. I deleted one of every entry, and when I synced again it added all of them back. How should I deal? thanks!

  17. I am desperately looking for a way to do text search in the iPhone contact list — like you can do in a Palm. I have over 2 names and I need a way to look up by words in the whole contact card.

    Anyone know a solution?

    Thanks in advance!

  18. Whenever I sync my iPhone Contacts with Outlook, it asks (tells me) that is going to delete x amount of addresses and modify x amout of addresses. It doesn’t tell me which ones that are to be deleted or modified. I asked Apple about this and they think it is because of different field names (cell vs moble, etc.) I am looking for a 3rd party app that will NOT do this so I can use my iPhone to sync address (contacts) from my home computer to my work computer. Thanks for any help.

  19. So, you can do this only on the Mac in Address Book? Or by buying an add-on app?

    I’ll echo “many great features but it was not designed as a business tool”

  20. I thought I had all of my contacts problems fixed. I did a software upgrade on my 3gs and it allowed my contacts to be sorted by company name. I recently upgraded to a 4g and my contacts list has reverted to being listed by the individual. I have my contacts on my imac shown by company name and sorted by that but when I sync the phone is different than the computer.

  21. Sorry, I know this is an old topic, but I am desperately searching for a tool that allows me to manage my iPhone contacts from my PC! I keep on searching but didn’t find anything that’s similar to the Mac address book. Btw I don’t have Outlook and I don’t want to use the iCloud – at least not for my address book. Any tips?

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