Dot-Contact pushes auto-updating address book

Many proud souls fill their contact databases with the addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of every friend, family member and business associate with whom they come in contact. But by the time they reach contact utopia, chances are that half the information has become outdated.

Marching in to solve this problem is, a start-up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Ants has developed a service that automatically keeps a persons contacts up-to-date.

"Obviously, every e-mail package and customer relationship management software has a contact database, but its all static," says Rick Davis, president and CEO of Ants. "The solution we provide keeps that information updated."

Ants Scout software acts as a personal assistant whose only job is to keep contacts current. When someone downloads Scout, he or she only needs to enter his or her own personal information. Once installed, Scout asks the user to e-mail all of their contacts with an invitation to join Scout. Then, whenever a contact who has joined the Ants network changes his or her information, Scout automatically updates the new data in the users address book.

Scout is actually a small plug-in that runs in the background and works with the address books in Lotus Notes, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express. Every few days, the Scout software checks the Internet for information that might have been changed. Existing contact-management software, such as Interact Commerces ACT!, doesnt have this automatic contact-updating feature.

Davis explains Scout is really about propagation through association: The more people download and use it, the more contacts theyll send it to, and so on — the much-coveted "viral" effect that popular Internet applications like America Online Instant Messenger have achieved.

It sounds like a great idea. The problem is, several other companies have tried their hands at similar Internet auto-updating address books — and none have been very successful. A Dutch firm called Dottism had plans to develop an Internet address book product, but has reconsidered due to a lack of funds. Israels Contact Networks last year launched an Internet contact manager; the company could not be reached for this article. Meanwhile, another would-be competitor, ZKey, recently sold its 300,000-user customer list to Ants and decided to focus on other lines of business.

Reaching Critical Mass

For now, Scout is free to individual users. The companys revenue model is based on selling corporate site licenses and developing marketing partnerships, as well as charging for new Scout-based products that Davis says are coming down the pike. Ants has received a lot of interest from staffing companies and universities, he says.

"When we feel like we have critical mass, we will offer a [premium] subscription service with heavy functionality for heavy users," Davis says.

But when — and whether — Ants reaches critical mass is an open question. Davis refuses to disclose how many Scout users the company currently has signed up.

In any case, Ants Scout has become a useful tool for Tammi Nystul, a commercial real estate broker in Santa Barbara. "I know that when Ive moved, its such a pain to send out to everyone my new phone number and e-mail address, and they have something that does that for me and it saves a whole lot of time," she says.

The only difficulty shes encountered so far is that not many people have heard of Scout or Ants. Nystul has about 95 contacts in her Outlook address book, and of those, about 15 percent have downloaded Scout since she began using it last month. "Because the products new and theres not that much media about it, people are a little wary to download it," she says.