A Social Network Aims for the Business Crowd

The millions of teenagers and college students who helped build sites like MySpace and Facebook into multibillion-dollar acquisition targets will be sad to learn that social networking has sold out and gone corporate.

This week, Mountain View, Calif.-based Plaxo released the first Web-based service that allows the 9-to-5 crowd to synchronize address books and calendar data stored inside Microsoft Outlook, Google and Yahoo applications, Macs, Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail systems and even some mobile phones.

Users can then make all or parts of their calendars and contact lists available to others in their network.

Instead of friends of friends viewing your favorite TV shows or pictures from your senior prom on MySpace, colleagues of colleagues that you’ve never met could potentially find out which industry conferences you’re attending, your mobile phone number and, most important, whether your company is hiring or if you’re in the market for a new I.T. gig.

Think of it as LinkedIn—the online networking service for professionals—on steroids, with data that’s constantly updated every time someone in your network changes jobs, gets promoted or commits to attend an industry event. Throw in some Flickr pictures, some links to personal Web pages and a handful of Evites for business-related functions, and you have a smorgasbord of information that headhunters, competitors and marketers would kill for.

“For CIOs, it’s a real benefit to meet people that you normally wouldn’t meet, and find potential resources and employees that you might not have met otherwise,” says Andrew Frank, an analyst at Gartner. “Now your personal Rolodex isn’t in the company directory. It’s with you everywhere you go. And you can access the same for an unlimited number of other people.”

Plaxo Pulse, the social networking component that augments the company’s address and contact synchronization software, uses Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to collect blog posts, contact changes, calendars, photos and even Amazon.com Wish List data, and then distribute it to approved friends and colleagues.

The Plaxo basic service is free, and it’s in test mode right now at Plaxo.com. A premium version costs $49.95 per year; it offers features like automatic data recovery and the elimination of duplicate contacts.

So far, more than 15 million people have registered for Plaxo’s service, and it’s available in seven languages–English, French, German, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. The number of active users, such as those signing on at least once a week or month, is not available. To date, Plaxo has received more than $28 million in venture capital funding from backers including DAG Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

Because so much information can be shared by so many so quickly, CIOs will have to rely on individual users to exercise common sense when determining what information can be shared and with whom it can be exchanged.

“There are some people who are naturally suspicious of technology like this,” Frank says. “But the uptake rate of these services, just like IM and e-mail, is extremely high. It’s just one more thing for CIOs to start thinking about.”

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