Make way for another major update to the LinkedIn platform: today the company is relaunching its Contacts section as a smart contact management system that will let users link up and integrate connections on LinkedIn with those from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft apps; Evernote; TripIt; your iPhone and more, and then serve as a “personal assistant” to help manage the interactions you make with them.
Along with this, LinkedIn is launching a Contacts app for the iPhone — its third standalone app in addition to LinkedIn itself and business card scanner CardMunch, and the first time that LinkedIn has broken out one feature of its platform in its own app. Sachin Rekhi, the creator of Contacts, says that access to the new Contacts will come in stages: first to a limited number of users in the U.S., then to the rest of the country, and then to the rest of LinkedIn’s user base worldwide.
The iPhone app, meanwhile, will be free to download and use with no specific plans for monetizing at the moment. As a point of comparison, the company’s new iPhone and Android apps, introduced last week, are now running a limited number of mobile ads.
Contacts is the first big product to come out of LinkedIn’s October 2011 acquisition of Connected, the smart contacts management platform it bought to “revolutionize contact management” on LinkedIn. Rekhi, the product lead for Contacts, was one of the co-founders of Connected.
The main idea behind it is to help LinkedIn become more of a platform for managing and interacting with people you know through work. In turn, this will (LinkedIn hopes) increase the amount of time that users spend on LinkedIn as a whole. While some of LinkedIn’s recent updates — for example, the new Recruiter pages — may be aimed more at “power users” (and paying users) of the platform, Contacts has a more universal feel to it. We all face the same problems: we connect with people in different ways online, and this is an offering to manage that in a better and smarter way.
This comes through a number of feature updates:
Whereas in the old version of Contacts, LinkedIn allowed for one-off imports from services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook and others, what users can do now is integrate those contacts as live links, so when something changes on any of those third party accounts, the info gets updated in LinkedIn.
The full list of services that can be integrated include Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar; Google Apps Mail, Contacts, Calendar; Yahoo! Mail, Contacts, Calendar; Outlook Mail, Contacts, Calendar; iPhone Address Book (via the LinkedIn Contacts app); LinkedIn’s CardMunch service; Evernote and TripIt. Outlook Contacts CSV, Mac Address Book vCard and Yahoo! Contacts CSV are all supported as one-off contact imports. Here’s how it looks when you’ve started to import contacts:
When you link up any of the above, LinkedIn automatically finds and adds the new contact details to any pre-existing names in your contact list. The different sources then appear as icons next to each name:
That list, in turn, can now be organised in different ways, using a tab in the upper right corner, with different views including by recent conversations (and its communications opposite, by those with whom we’ve lost touch). You can also view by those you’ve most recently added, alphabetical, company, and location. The last of these is about organizing users around what cities they are based in, but you can see how this might potentially get used in LinkedIn’s mobile app also to include a location-based feature and sort by people who are nearby — something that could be useful particularly at business events, for example.
Within each contact, you also now have an expanded relationship view that integrates all of the interactions you’ve had with a particular person over the different networks that have been integrated, along with any reminders that you have set yourself to connect in the future. This is a pretty nifty feature in that it doesn’t require manual updates for past events; instead it automatically aggregates whatever has happened already into a timeline of events:
Drawing back out into the wider Contacts interface, LinkedIn is making the interface more visually appealing, similar to the rest of its product refreshes. Here, this comes in the form of a photo carousel of your contacts, which runs across the top of the Contacts page and includes reminders for different tasks. Those reminders, in turn, automatically direct you to other tasks: for example, in the meeting reminder below, the “plan a meeting” button automatically goes to a screen where the user can send an email using whatever network the contact exists on (eg Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook, etc.)
What the emphasis on third-party networks means, too, is that the new Contacts feature will also include the ability to integrate and tag people who are not in your LinkedIn networks but that you would potentially like to add at some point in the future; and of course you can also delete those that you do not want to add.
Gmail, for example, creates a contact out of everyone who has emailed you, but you may not actually want all those people in your larger Contacts network. Rekhi points out that even if they are imported, LinkedIn sorts “intelligently” and will pick up if you’re not actually interacting with people on a regular basis and subsequently rank them lower in non-alphabetical list views. “We apply an algorithm on top of that list [which asks] is that person interesting to you?” he explained.
The new Contacts service comes on the heels of a number of other new products that LinkedIn has been rolling out to widen out the usefulness of its site and make it a place where people will visit more often and for longer.
In addition to the new iPhone and Android apps, LinkedIn had a major website overhaul last year; launched a new search engine; introduced status update mentions and Klout-style endorsements; and it is also expanding its premium offerings, such as its Recruiter homepage for some of the site’s most prolific users.
Mobile is playing a big role in that drive for more usage. LinkedIn says that mobile is its fastest-growing consumer service at the moment, with 27% of its 155 million monthly users visiting LinkedIn via mobile apps (up from just 8% two years ago); and weekly mobile page views jumping 250% year-over-year.
LinkedIn is not committing to launching everything new on mobile at the same time as desktop, as it is with Contacts — “We believe in a multi-app approach when the use case warrants,” a spokesperson said — but it’s likely you will see a lot more features coming to mobile in the future. In the case of the new Contacts app, that will include special calendar and to-do views that bring in some of the features from LinkedIn’s flagship app. Rekhi also says that some features of Contacts will also likely be making their way to the main app in the future, too.
With the Contacts iPhone app, LinkedIn is opting again for a native-first approach: this reinforces comments made by LinkedIn last week, when it launched new versions of its Android and iPhone apps.
At the time, Kiran Prasad, head of mobile engineering for LinkedIn, described native as “more efficient” than HTML5 and mobile websites, while its head of mobile products, Joff Redfern, said that the company would be focusing more on native app experiences because some features simply were not possible to create yet on the mobile web.
That’s not to say multiple plaforms do not matter: with Contacts, Rekhi says Android and mobile web versions will be coming next.
At least in this early stage of the product, Contacts falls into a somewhat grey area between what are professional contacts and what are personal contacts, and what role LinkedIn plays.
Facebook and Twitter contacts are not included as import options right now. “Our members are focused are on professional life,” Rekhi explained as the reason for that.
But on the other hand, when asked if contacts from professional services like salesforce.com or other CRM networks will be importable in the future, Rekhi’s answer there was, “Our current focus is making it easy [for individual professionals to manage] relationships, not leverage those in the workplace setting.”
In the blurry areas between work and leisure that many of us occupy these days, you can kind of see what he means, but it’s also neither here nor there. But that’s possibly to LinkedIn’s advantage right now, as it continues to grow and figure out where it can compete or complement Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yammer and the rest.
One clue to where social networks may play a role in a later iteration of Contacts, however, is with Rapportive, the chrome extension that lets you view a contact’s public social media posts in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. LinkedIn acquired Rapportive a little over a year ago and has retained it as a standalone product.
“You can imagine integration with these kinds of applications in the future, but right now it’s not tied in,” said Rekhi. “They are separate services with separate database backends.”
Update: Apparently those of you interested in trying the new app out right away may see some issues. “We are seeing a very small number of incidents where mobile users are experiencing load delay when onboarding to the new Contacts app as a result of high demand,” a spokesperson tells us. “We encourage users who experience this delay to try uploading their contacts again in a few hours.”