Turning Google Contacts into address labels for Christmas/New Year’s cards is a task that I expected to be simple. The plan was
- export to “Google CSV” format
- upload to avery.com to generate a PDF for printing
This fails because the Google export process produces a CSV file with nearly 100 columns, which is too many for the Avery system to handle.
No problem, open in Microsoft Excel and cut down to about 5 columns, right?
What happens when you combine programmer’s from two of the world’s smartest companies? Excel is not smart enough to recognize a column of 5- or 9-digit values as ZIP codes, even if they appear right after a column of two-character state abbreviations. The leading zeros are trimmed off, turning Massachusetts ZIP codes into four-digit values, e.g., “02138” to “2138” (the ZIP code of the great minds of Harvard and Harvard Square, who will soon be tapped by President Warren to optimize our government).
What if we keep this as a Google-only process? The people who built Contacts apparently don’t talk to the people who built Sheets. There is no way to export directly from Contacts to a Google spreadsheet.
Save to the local disk and then upload, right? The behavior is exactly the same as with Excel: leading zeroes of all of the five-digit ZIP codes are trimmed off. This is the company we’re going to trust with medical diagnoses? (“The doctor will Google you now” turning into “The Google will doctor you now.”)
As with most other challenges, if you’re a skilled user of Excel the solution is straightforward: create a blank workbook and then use the Data tab to import “From Text/CSV”. Even on the full automatic setting, it correctly infers that the ZIP column is text, not number. But if the fully automated import works, why doesn’t it work simply to open the CSV file in Excel?
(The whole process ended up taking way longer than if I’d simply addressed 180 envelopes by hand, of course.)
The particular challenge of wrestling with Google Contacts or generating addressed envelopes is not that interesting, but I think it is a good starting point for a discussion of how machine learning and AI can ever be integrated back into the computer systems we use day to day. Google Translate does some impressive stuff, but why isn’t it easy to enhance Google Sheets?
Separately, the Google Contacts software has a long way to go to reach the same level of quality as what Sharp was shipping with the Wizard organizer in 1989. A contact with a single street address, once exported, will appear in a CSV-file row without any street address. Why is it difficult for Google to do what Apple, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Sharp were doing successfully in the 1990s?