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How to share contacts in Microsoft Outlook

Export and import your Outlook contacts manually or use the $35 ShareO add-on for Outlook to sync contacts automatically with other Outlook users.

Few resources on your computer are more valuable to your worklife than your list of contacts. Unfortunately, contacts are also among the most difficult assets to maintain.

Recently, a reader named Alan posed this question:

I and my two associates use Microsoft Outlook for our sales contacts. Right now we maintain three separate contact databases. We would like to merge our databases into one that all three of us can access, modify, and update as necessary. Is there a process/software you can recommend to accomplish this?

If you don't mind the manual approach, Outlook lets you export your contacts as a PST file that your co-workers can import to their Outlook accounts. Each user still has his own separate contact list that other users can access from their Outlook profile, so there's no real syncing going on.

Of course, the changes each person makes to his contact list won't be apparent to the other users until the PST file has been re-exported with the updated information and then re-imported by each of the other users. Automatically synching a single contact list among multiple Outlook users (without an Exchange server, of course) requires a program such as 4Team's $35 ShareO, which is available in a limited-function 14-day free trial version.

ShareO lets you share and sync any Outlook folder without using an Exchange server. The program works with all versions of Outlook from 2000 through 2010 but runs only on Windows PCs. The company also offers the $25 ShareContacts program that syncs only Outlook contacts. I tested the more full-featured ShareO.

The export/import approach to sharing Outlook contacts
The three PCs in my home office have three different versions of Outlook installed. The workhorse PC runs Outlook 2003 and has 414 contacts, the backup system uses Outlook 2007 and has only 42 entries in its contact list, and the test PC has a default installation of Outlook 2010 with zero contacts.

It took only a few minutes to export the contacts on the workhorse as an Outlook PST file and import the file to the backup and test PCs. To export contacts from Outlook 2003 and 2007, click File > Import and Export. In Outlook 2010, click File > Open > Import. In all three versions, select "Export to a file" under "Choose an action to perform" in the Import and Export Wizard and then click Next.

Under "Create a file type," select Personal Folder File (.pst) or Outlook Data File (.pst), depending on your version of Outlook, and click Next. Choose your Contacts folder under "Select a folder to export from," check or uncheck "Include subfolders," if necessary, and choose Next again.

Give the file a unique name, click the Browse button, and choose a location to store your exported contacts file (or accept the default location Outlook chooses for you). The option to replace duplicates with items being exported is chosen by default. You can elect to allow duplicates or to exclude duplicate entries from the exported file. Finally, click Finish.

Microsoft Outlook file-export wizard
When you export contacts from Outlook you can skip duplicate entries, allow duplicates, or replace existing contacts (the default option). Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To import the contacts to another Outlook account, sign in to the account and choose File > Import and Export (Outlook 2003 and 2007) or File > Open > Import (Outlook 2010). Select "Import from another program or file" under Choose an Action to Perform and click Next. Click Personal Folder File (.pst) or Outlook Data File (.pst), depending on your version of Outlook, and click Next.

In the "File to import" window, click Browse and navigate to the PST file you exported in the previous step. Choose the Contacts folder, check "Include subfolders," if necessary, select "Import items into the current folder," and click Finish.

Outlook add-on syncs shared contact lists
The manual import-export process for contacts (and other Outlook data folders) is sufficient for a single user who simply wants to access the same contact list in multiple Outlook profiles, but it won't meet the needs of two or more people who want to combine their separate contact databases into a single repository without using an Exchange server.

The ShareO add-on for Outlook promises to sync multiple contact folders (and other Outlook folders) among a group of users. I tested the program by sharing a contact folder with more than 400 entries among three Outlook profiles using Outlook 2003, 2007, and 2010, respectively. The program also lets you share and sync e-mail, calendars, tasks, and other Outlook folders, but I tested it only with contacts.

After you download and install the add-on, it places a ShareO option on the main menu in Outlook 2003 and in the ribbon of Outlook 2007 and 2010.

ShareO options in Outlook 2010
ShareO adds a row of buttons to the ribbon in Outlook 2010 that let you share and sync folders with a single click. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To export your contacts to another Outlook profile, select the Contacts folder (or any other folder you want to share) and click Share on the ShareO menu to open the program's sharing wizard. Click the plus button and enter the recipient's name and e-mail address, or select the person's entry from the list if you've shared with them previously, and click Next.

On the next screen, check the items you want to share, and click Next again. (Note that ShareO's filters for restricting the items you share doesn't work in the trial version.) Select the advanced-sharing option to access more sharing controls. Once you've stepped through the wizard, click Finish to begin the folder export.

Depending on the size of the folder, it can take several minutes for the information to be packaged and delivered. When the recipient (who must also have ShareO installed) receives the folder, he is instructed to select a destination for it, or he may reject the folder. The program identifies duplicate entries and places potential conflicts in a separate folder for your review.

ShareO recipient options
ShareO alerts the recipient that you want to share Outlook information with him and lets the recipient select a destination folder for the data or reject the information. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The recipient is also alerted to the presence of duplicate entries and is given the option to view and resolve the conflicts. To sync a shared folder, simply click the Sync button on the ShareO menu. ShareO lets you create shared folders that can be viewed by people who don't have ShareO installed. I didn't test this feature.

You can prevent private items from being shared and otherwise customize the information that you share with others. When sharing calendars you can indicate free and busy times without having to provide details, for example (this is another feature of the program that I didn't test). The add-on also lets you share files and folders via public or private shared folders, encrypt the data you share, and restrict access to the data on a user-by-user basis.

Casual Outlook users may not be able to justify spending $35 for each PC you want to share and sync data with, but for Alan and his co-workers, ShareO could be a low-cost alternative to installing and maintaining an Exchange server simply to share and sync Outlook folders.

Note that 4Team also makes the $60 Sync2 program that syncs data between Outlook and Google Calendars and Contacts.