After months of speculation that Plaxo was on the block, nobody was really surprised when Comcast on May 14 agreed to buy the struggling enabler of networked e-mail services. Even so, the reaction was, largely, "this sucks."
Plaxo started out as an e-mail address book that updated contact information whenever users made a change, realizing early on that e-mail was the hub of many peoples' Internet experiences for work and play.
The company watched the success of social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, which enabled users to post photos and pretty much any type of content, and got hungry for a piece of that pie. The result, unveiled last year, was Plaxo's Pulse, which aimed to aggregate people's e-mail contacts and make them more fluid.
Pulse never caught the cache of those uber-startups. Then along came suitors, with Philadelphia cable provider Comcast emerging as the winner. Comcast is a major provider of video communications products and services. The idea is that Comcast could be Plaxo's launching pad, helping the company grow its user base beyond its current 50 million users.
Plaxo, which will remain an independent operation in Silicon Valley, reporting to Comcast Interactive Media, is already providing the universal address book for Comcast's SmartZone communications center, slated to launch this year. The company is also now hosting all of the address book accounts for Comcast webmail users.
But there is more on the road map. Plaxo CEO Ben Golub wrote in a blog post May 14 that Plaxo would work on socially enabling the Comcast.net portal and Comcast Interactive Media's Fancast and Fandango properties.
Ideally, Plaxo wants to bring social media to users who might not be savvy enough to seek out a social network of their own to join. And it wants to do so over video, so imagine users e-mailing each other the video content Comcast carries.
"For example, you should be able to securely post family photos online in Pulse, and have them viewable by any of your family members, whether they are online, at work, on their mobile device or in their living room watching TV," Golub wrote.
Current Plaxo members will be able to use the services they've always used, though Plaxo officials argued that the "network effect" of joining Comcast will kick Plaxo up a notch or two. Moreover, Plaxo will continue to be active in data portability to give users control over their data.
Comcast is Plaxo's largest customer and partner, so the shoe seems to fit. That doesn't mean people are comfortable with it. Most users expressed their discontent or disgust for the deal in the comments section of Golub's blog post.
"We sync our company contacts with Plaxo and of course we need 110% assurance that we have total control over our content. ... How can Plaxo assure that there will be firewall around the content which prevents Comcast from accessing to our data? For the time being we will stay with Plaxo, but as soon I see an alternative I will switch," wrote Ferdinand.
"Uh oh. Where were those instructions on cancelling my Plaxo account? Or should I try to dirty up all my contacts' data first? Comcast has a terrible reputation among everyone I've ever talked to for abusing customers' trust," wrote Nathan.
Scott K wrote: "...Someone in Comcast corporate will have the bright idea of making Plaxo's service an -in-network' exclusive for their customers. At that time they'll probably kill off Pulse and use the best parts of it (photo sharing, etc.) to enhance their own Comcast-branded online offerings. The Plaxo name will also die at that time. It will all be victim of some Comcast executive who wants to do cost-cutting."
So, for as hard as Plaxo has had to work to get where it is, the company will have to work that much harder-and push Comcast-to reinforce users' trust. For a social network, a trust lost is a trust hard to regain.