Bluetooth Made Me Un-picture My Contacts

Can software become more complicated and yet still be easy to use? It seems that, unfortunately in some cases, it can - and does so whether you like it or not. I just spent two hours trying to fix the Bluetooth connection between my wife's phone and her car, and discovered just how unfortunate it can be.

From a standing start only a few years ago my wife has dived head first into our exciting, online, socially-connected world. It took me ages at first just to persuade her that she needed a mobile phone. Now she's fully immersed into the digital delights of tablets, smartphones, email, Facebook, YouTube, and more. And it all seems to merge into some amorphous mass of transient information delivery with a useful lifespan of twenty minutes or less.

Except for one aspect: contact information. Maybe it's something to do with the combination of Google, Facebook, Android, and Exchange ActiveSync on her phone, but her contacts list grows magically by the day - and every entry is populated with a photo. And entries get magically linked together, with data from multiple sources, so that figuring out how to edit one becomes a nightmare. Even when you do edit it, the stuff you changed seems to get switched back again the next day.

Most of the time this isn't a problem. She loves that her phone shows her friends' latest photo when they call her, and that the People list has pictures that get updated automatically. I have to admit that it's all very clever stuff. However, her car doesn't seem to agree. Like many modern vehicles it has a Bluetooth hands-free connection for the phone, allowing you to make and answer calls while your phone is in your pocket. It displays all her contact phone numbers, including lists of the top 10 and a search feature. And it's voice-activated as well, so there's no loss of road/eye contact.

Or it was until it stopped working last week. Now the car just complains that it can't find any phones, and prompts to "start pairing". Being a logical kind of person, I began my fault diagnosis by pairing my phone (exactly the same brand and model) and it worked fine, though it took ages to connect. After a bit of investigation, it seemed that the connection was held up while it was downloading the contacts list. My phone has photos for some contacts (I cloned the list from my wife's some while back so that I had all our "vital numbers" in my phone), and also includes several entries that are auto-populated from our corporate SharePoint because the ActiveSync is to my Microsoft email account.

Aha! I wonder if it's the photos that are the problem? So I fire up OWA to delete the photos from the contacts as an experiment. But you can't. There seems to be no way other than deleting the contact and recreating it. Next, try "real" Outlook 2013. Again, no option in the Edit pane to remove a photo from a contact. And then I notice the list of "sources" from which the information for each contact is collated. How clever, and how annoying. It was only after a search of the web that I found you have to choose one of the entries in the "View Source" list, where you can right-click the photo and select "Remove picture".

After half an hour of this multi-step rigmarole I had a list of photo-less contacts (except for the corporate contacts that it refuses to remove). And, back in the car, the phone connected and populated the contacts list in less than 30 seconds. So obviously that's the problem. The car tries to load the photo-populated contacts list that's multi-megabytes in size, times out part way through, and decides that it can't connect to the phone.

Of course, there's a pop-up dialog when you pair a phone that asks if you want to allow access to the contacts list on the phone. Instead of saying yes, I tried saying no - thinking it would solve the problem. But then the phone becomes pretty much unusable through the voice-activated or in-car menu interface because there's no numbers, although you can answer incoming calls and dial numbers that you can remember. So it seems that you need to make a choice between pretty smiling faces for your contacts or usability in your car.

Though, according to a recent survey I saw in the newspaper, only one person in ten actually remembers more than one phone number these days because the phone does all the harvesting and remembering of numbers automatically. Which was followed by another report that one in seven people become "highly stressed" if their phone battery runs down, and "would find life almost impossible" if they lost their phone!

I admit that I worry about losing all the contacts that my wife and I have collected on our phones over time, but I reckon we're reasonably well protected because ActiveSync keeps the lists in our email accounts up to date, and I consciously export the contacts list to a file on a regular basis in case both of our email providers decide we're persona non-grata at some point. But that's just my usual paranoia.

Mind you, now I regularly have to suffer wife-generated complaints that our DECT house phones don't show the name of people when they call on the landline. If her mobile phone knows who the caller is, why doesn't the ordinary phone? Yes it has a contact list maintained by the base station that's available in all the handsets, and I did spend an evening entering the most commonly used numbers. But how do I justify to her that modern technology still has some wide disconnects, when a simple mobile phone can do everything by itself?

Maybe it's time to switch over to IP Telephony in our house. I'm sure I've got an old Cisco router that does IPT in my collection of spare hardware. I wonder if it can do ActiveSync with an email contacts list...