Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Walt Mossberg

Mining Email for Contacts

If you’re feeling guilty about how rarely you update your email contacts, you’re not alone. There are loads of people just like you who would rather not waste time cutting and pasting contact information from emails into digital address books. Instead, they search through email messages for the most up-to-date information, like phone numbers or addresses.

But it’s easy to delete or lose emails. Contacts in a digital address book are more permanent, and they synchronize with smartphones.

This week I tested Gwabbit (Gwabbit.com), a tool that automatically hunts through your emails as you receive them, finding contact information that can be captured — “gwabbed” — and saved in your contacts. It starts on its own without prompting and uses pop-up notifications to tell you that a message has contact information you might want stored in your address book.

Gwabbit comes from Technicopia LLC and uses a pink Gwabbit Wabbit as its mascot, which adds a little whimsy to the dull task of saving contact information. Currently, it works only as a Microsoft Outlook plug-in, but Technicopia is working on a BlackBerry application that will come out at the end of May. Down the line, the company is planning products for the Mac and Web-based email services.

I started with the free version of Gwabbit, which lasts for 14 days or 20 Gwabbit uses, then upgraded to the paid version, which costs $20. Gwabbit’s accuracy — its ability to find the right information in an email and put it in the right field in an Outlook contact card — was usually reliable. The product works by looking for symbols, like “@” to designate email addresses or parentheses to indicate phone numbers, as well as where information appears in a signature.

In most cases, Gwabbit took only a few seconds to work, per contact. It wasn’t always perfect, but worked well enough to make me start saving a substantially larger number of Outlook contacts — and it updated my contacts that had old, outdated information.

Gwabbit installs with a few annoying features turned on. If you’re like me and you get a lot of emails from people you don’t know, Gwabbit’s notifications will pop up often, which could be irritating. If you turn the notifications off, you may not remember to use Gwabbit.

I found it irksome that Gwabbit installs its own promotion in every contact that it creates for you. If you used Gwabbit to make a contact card in Outlook, the notes field will be filled with an announcement that you used Gwabbit, including a Web link for the product — even in the paid version. Technicopia says that it will eliminate this in the next paid version of Gwabbit, which is due out in about three weeks.

Competitors to Gwabbit include the built-in contact grab tools in email clients like Microsoft Outlook (MSFT) and Apple Mail (AAPL). But these programs don’t automatically extract information from all email addresses the way Gwabbit does. Other third-party programs like Signature2Contacts don’t pop up automatically when an email contains information that you don’t have; instead, you must initiate extracting information.

When Gwabbit is downloaded and installed, it adds to Outlook its own toolbar, which can be hidden at will.

When Gwabbit’s auto-grab feature is turned on, a small bubble appears in Outlook when any highlighted email has contact information that isn’t saved in your address book — including people whose signatures have changed since the last time you saved them. The Gwabbit bubble takes a few seconds to appear, which Technicopia says allows enough time for you to read an email. But if you’re scrolling down a list of emails, this bubble will keep popping up for many different emails and can slightly slow down your ability to arrow down through the list.

When Gwabbit can’t find signature information in an email, it creates a bare-bones contact card for the person, and then gives you the option of highlighting the person’s signature block, from which to extract information for the contact card. In my experience, this problem occurred only a handful of times — usually when looking at a recent email in a string of messages back and forth, because Gwabbit couldn’t find someone’s signature buried within the correspondence.

If a Gwabbit notification pops up and you don’t want to save the contact information for the person who sent that email, you can hit an “Ignore this Contact” option in the notification. This sets Gwabbit so it never tries to save that person’s information again. If you want to save information but you’re in the middle of doing something else when the notification pops up, you can hit the “X” button in the notification bubble. This closes the notification but doesn’t ignore the contact in the future.

Gwabbit seems like a simple tool, but its ability to find contact information that you don’t already have — or that differs from what you already have — is a task that you aren’t likely doing regularly. So stop feeling guilty about your contacts and just gwab them.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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