Address Book, I really want to like you. You're a central player on my Mac, designed as a core component of Mac OS X where all of my contacts are stored. And yet you consistently annoy the heck out of me at the worst times.
I was putting together my list of contacts for addressing holiday cards, a task that seems to require that I start from scratch every year. It's traditionally annoying enough that I get cranky, and yet not so onerous that I'm willing to hand-write each envelope.
So, starting over again this year, my wife and I threw together a Google Docs spreadsheet to build the initial list. That enabled either of us to add names as they came to us without having to manage one shared Excel spreadsheet.
Once the list was complete, I set about getting mailing addresses from my Address Book database. I created a new group called Xmas List and began the laborious process of searching for a contact and dragging it to the Xmas List name in the Group column. (I wish I could open a group in a new window, thereby making the target of dragging larger and easier to hit.) We had around 70 recipients on our list, so this took quite some time.
The next step in my plan was simply to export the addresses as a tab-delimited text file that I could import into a Microsoft Word mailing label template. But Address Book exports only vCard files.
Really? Years of Mac OS X software development and Address Book can't even export plain text? (I hoped, briefly, that Excel might be able to parse the vCard format, but no luck.)
With the mailing information locked into Address Book, I figured I would check out the program's printing capabilities. I rarely print, so I was surprised to discover that the features are more robust than I thought, with options to print mailing labels, envelopes, contact lists, and the like. Right away, though, I hit problems. The label template I'm using, Avery 8160, showed up in the list, but the preview was wrong, showing two columns instead of the correct three.
And then I noticed something really weird. Contacts for whom I'd specified extra relations (such as a Child field) showed up as, for example, "Adam Engst and Tristan." As far as I can tell, there's no way to change that behavior.
The final straw (I still had a little hope at this point) was customizing how some recipients appeared on the labels. I wanted to enter a name such as "Susan and Ron Valencia." But my contact list is, rightly, set up with a single person for each record. To get "Susan and Ron Valencia," I'd need to set the First Name field for Susan's record to "Susan and Ron."
Labels & Addresses Saves Christmas -- Instead of canceling the entire holiday card endeavor (which was looking like a viable option), I took a step back. There must be something better out there. After some poking around online, I came across Endicia, a truly impressive looking application and service that can print labels and postage. Endicia was way too much for my modest needs, but I can see how a small business that mails and ships a lot of material would find it useful.
The ghost of solutions past flickered in my brain, and after a bit more searching I found a DealBITS drawing for BeLight Software's Mail Factory. The software has since been renamed to the more generic Labels & Addresses, and it was exactly what I needed.
As with many of BeLight's products, Labels & Addresses offers lots of pre-made designs and templates to spice up mailing labels, envelopes, postcards, and even folder labels. I had less ambitious needs, so I bypassed those options and went straight for a blank mailing label.
The first sign that Labels & Addresses would work was that my Avery label was the default selection when I clicked the Labels tab. Choosing it brought up a window containing a blank label. In the sidebar at left, I clicked the Contacts button to reveal my Address Book database, and there I chose my Xmas List group. I didn't have to import anything, although Labels & Addresses can bring in contacts from Entourage, Excel, Now Contact, FileMaker, vCards, or tab-delimited text files.
One click created an "address panel" containing the fields for a typical mailing label (name, company, address). As these labels were personal, I clicked a pop-up menu attached to the panel that let me choose from one of several templates. You can also edit the templates or create your own.
I did a small amount of formatting, positioning the panel flush left (using onscreen guides similar to those found in Keynote) and changing the font and size. Clicking any contact in the sidebar previewed the label.
The next step was to customize some of the names. You can click any text and edit it, which I thought would do the trick; however, clicking the contact name in the sidebar again (such as when selecting all of the names for printing) restores the data to what appears in Address Book. After much promise, I thought I had hit a stumbling block. I considered using Address Book's Nickname field to set up the variations I wanted (like "Susan and Ron"), and replacing the First Name field in the address panel, but that would have required me to change every contact in Address Book.
Realize that at this point I had read no documentation, barely skimmed the Web site, and not explored any of the program's menus. I was 90 percent done with my job by just jumping into the software.
Clicking the Print button revealed the solution: print lists. You can create a customizable list of your contacts, in this case based on my Xmas List group, which retains any local edits you make. From the Merge Printing pop-up menu in the first Print dialog, I chose Edit List. (You can also choose Window > Contacts > Print Lists.)
In the dialog that appeared, I selected all contacts in my Xmas List group, moved them to the Persons field, and selectively edited their personal information. I not only added some names to the First Name field, but also deleted the Last Name field when I wanted to be more casual (such as addressing friends like "Peter, Emily, and Olive"). Doing so didn't change my Address Book database, but the list does become separated from the contacts. If the address for "Susan and Ron" changes, the list won't pick up the new information from Address Book; I'd have to also make the change to the print list.
With a few sheets of custom labels printed after a much shorter period of work than what faced me in Address Book, I was able to say goodbye to my cranky attitude and start mailing our Christmas cards.
Labels & Addresses is available in two editions: the Standard edition is a 32.6 MB download, costs $49.95, and includes around 1,000 clip art images; the Retail edition includes a gigabyte of extra art and costs $59.95. The software requires Mac OS X 10.4 and higher and prints a visible watermark on labels if used without a license.