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ProPhone: For When a ZIP Code is Not Enough

If searching for ZIP codes and the like is too general for your needs (see my article about ZIP code programs in TidBITS-267), Pro CD’s ProPhone might initially sound like an attractive alternative. Once you install the base ProPhone software (which comes with any ProPhone title) you can use any ProPhone title, which include:

  • CanadaPHONE – Canadian residential and business listings.
  • EUROPAGES – European business listings.
  • selectPHONE – U.S. residential and business listings on five CDs, which can be retrieved by name, address (or part of an address), city, state, ZIP code, telephone number, or business type (based on a SIC code, and there are many).
  • directPHONE – U.S. residential and business listings on two CDs, which can be retrieved by name only.
  • freePHONE – AT&T’s 800 number listings, which AT&T also now has on the Web.

ProPhone has good uses, but to best understand what ProPhone offers, think marketing slime. Have you ever received a one-time offer – in the form of a form letter – inviting you to send no money now, but to get ready to explore your family tree and learn that you descend directly from King Weasel the Second? The people who create such offers could have easily used a ProPhone product to identify you as a potential customer.

ProPhone titles work under DOS, Windows, or MacOS, and based on the looks of the Mac program, ProPhone did not get its start on the Mac side of the house. According to Pro CD’s literature, a major feature of ProPhone, called Jericho, lets ProPhone search across multiple CDs. To use Jericho, you need more than one CD drive; it only works on mounted CDs, which can be mounted locally or over a network. The Macintosh version requires a color monitor, System 7, and at least 8 MB RAM. The native version isn’t out yet, but Pro CD is working on it.

I was excited to receive a review copy of selectPHONE. SelectPHONE lists for $299 and comes with a coupon for one free update. Updates come out quarterly, and a year’s subscription costs $399. SelectPHONE enables you to use somewhat complex search criteria to search a directory of U.S. business and residential listings. I detest using paper phone books because I always look in the wrong one, or forget that P comes before Q, or confuse the white page business listings with the white page residential listings. I hoped that selectPHONE would prove an enabling experience. I’m sorry to report that it was not enabling, nor enlightening, since although I did find God, it turns out God lives in L.A. Sigh.

Searching — The ProPhone interface consists of a wide set of columns that would do well on a Pivot monitor in a landscape rotation. The top row of each column has a title (Name, Address, Phone, and so on) and the second row has a data entry area where you enter search criteria. For example, for State, you might enter OH to find entries in Ohio. The remaining rows display search results.

A few of the data entry areas are also pop-up menus, and clicking the down-pointing arrow for the menu brings up a dialog box of options. The dialog box for the SIC (Standard Industrial Codes) field offers codes for every business I’d ever heard of and some new ones that must have sprung forth from the fevered imaginations of high school guidance counselors (abdominal supports wholesale, buttonhole & eyelet machine manufacturer, helicopter charter & rental services, highway sign installation). The searching capabilities include ANDs, ORs, NOTs, and wildcards, so you can do fairly specific searching. The manual offers an example of searching for everyone in an area who is a dentist or a doctor. If you can figure out the SIC codes, you can do this with ease.

To search, you enter the criteria and then press Return or click the Retrieve button on the floating toolbar. As the manual puts it, "Meet Max, our retriever. Type your search criteria, then click on Max with your mouse. Max will retrieve all matching listings. For those of you non-dog-lovers out there, you may press the Return key instead." On my Power Mac 7100 ProPhone rapidly responded to search queries while running in emulation mode. Unfortunately, I’m unimpressed with the quality of the results.

Results — Using the Pacific CD, I searched for Engst, and – though I did find Adam’s aunt and also an Engst in Bellingham, I didn’t find Adam or myself, despite the fact that we have lived in the same place for well over a year and in the area for almost four years. Further searching on seven close friends who have lived in the same place for at least a year – and sometimes quite a number of years – resulted in seven failures.

I switched to the North East CD and searched on my maiden name (Byard) but failed to turn up my grandparents who have lived at the same address for years. Less surprisingly, I failed to turn up my sister who is a grad student at Yale – she moves about twice a year. I did find Adam’s uncle and grandparents who live in Queens, and Adam’s parents in Richford showed up. Moving along to the Great Lakes CD, I tried to find my parents in Yellow Springs, Ohio (they moved there about three years ago) but they were not listed.

My CDs were labeled "3rd Quarter 1994," so this level of failure seems inexcusable. [I originally wrote this review in late 1994.] The manual claims that "our new data supplier, based in China, is providing us with 100 percent of the listings contained in every telephone directory published in North America." Clearly, the CDs will not substitute for keeping a personal address book (or database) nor for having a paper phone book.

If you do get results worth using for some sort of marketing purpose (which, after all, is clearly what ProPhone intends you to do), you can select any one found individual and then click the Neighbors button to find neighbors (on the same street) of the selected person. You can also search for phone numbers close to the number of the selected person.

You can double-click to tag an entry as worthy of being contacted. Tagged items turn color and appear in the Global Tag Manager window, which you can switch to in order to only view tagged entries. Once you tag entries, you can print out mailing labels (in a few different formats, and with first name first, last name second or vice-versa), export them (in a variety of formats), or have your modem dial them up for you.

Nausea, or Sickness Unto Death — Frankly, I’m feeling nauseous, because selectPHONE is just the sort of mediocre marketing tool that has unleashed tons of unsolicited mail and millions of unwanted phone calls. The problem with junk mail and junk phone solicitations is that they are too poorly targeted to reach the people who want the services offered. They waste my time, your time, and the time of the people who have to sit in cubicles making those awful calls in an attempt to eke out a living. They tie up our phone lines and contribute to our land fills. They are a blight.

Pro CD, Inc. — 800/99CDROM — 617/631-0900
<[email protected]>

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