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Sharing email contacts is not as easy as you might think. I'll walk through a few ways it might be set up.

My wife and I share a number of computers. I'd like to change her over to a Gmail account, but I've not figured out how to have two Gmail accounts on the same computer. Two of the computers run Windows XP and the newest one runs Windows 8. On the Windows 8 machine, I've set up two users, but have not found a way to share or copy the contacts from my Gmail account to hers. Could you please advise?

In this excerpt from Answercast #78, I look at the complexity involved in trying to have two email accounts that share a contacts list.

Sharing email contacts

Well, I will tell you that in general, contact handling is a mess. I say that because it is this one piece of the email puzzle that has the most inter-compatibility problems.

It's very difficult to do pretty much everything you've described. However, I will start by at least giving you some ideas of how contacts work - and how want it is you're trying to do may or may not work for you.

Gmail runs in a browser

So, realize first of all: a Gmail account is a web page by default. You access Gmail by opening up your browsers, logging in with your account - and what you see is your email and your contacts.

In Gmail there is the option to log in as another account simultaneously. But fundamentally, the important thing to realize is it's the account that you log in with whose email you'll be looking at.

So, for example, if I go to Gmail and I log in with my Gmail account, I will be seeing my Gmail mail. If I then log out, and my wife logs in with her Gmail account, she will then be looking at her Gmail. So, in effect, we are looking at two different Gmail accounts on the same computer; just not at the same time.

Multiple users

If you've got multiple users in your Windows 8 machine, then all you really need to do is make sure that each user is logging in to Gmail with the proper account.

It's possible that you may have to log out from the other account first - depending on how the logged-in state is remembered by your browser across the two Windows users. But fundamentally, it's a browser state.

If you're logged into one user and you want to be in the other: log out.

Use a different browser

Now, there are a couple of approaches to being logged into two Gmail accounts simultaneously.

One approach that people have been using for a long time is to use a different browser. In other words, log in to your account using Firefox, and log into your wife's using Chrome or IE; I mean you've got three different browsers, perhaps, you could use three different accounts!

A lot of people have been doing that for a long time - and I actually did that for a very long time. It's actually very convenient and very simple. It just works.

The browsers are independent enough of each other that the experience becomes completely independent. You can actually have two windows on two different email accounts open at exactly the same time - as long as you're using two different browsers.

Simultaneous logins

The other approach is one that Google added not that long ago. If you click in the far right on what is usually your head (the icon on the far right that has the drop down with things like "sign out") you'll see at the bottom of that something called "Add account." That will allow you to actually log in to an additional Gmail account simultaneously.

Now they'll give you some warnings. There are, sometimes, some side effects that most people would never encounter; especially if you're just dealing with email.

It actually opens up another tab in the same browser. Now: you've got one tab that might have my email, and then another tab that might have my wife's email. It's very simple.

Separate accounts don't share contacts

Now, the problem that you're really running into here is:

  • You've got two different tabs (or two different browsers) and you're running two different instances of Gmail.

  • But you know what? They're not sharing contacts!

Ultimately there is no way, via the web interface, to share contacts between two Gmail accounts, or two Hotmail accounts, or two Yahoo accounts.

Exporting contact lists

The only way to do it is to export your contacts - which is available in the menus available with "your contacts." You export it to a file on your PC; then log into the other account and import it to that account.

The problem with this approach (besides it being fairly frustrating at some of the things that don't get exported) is that it doesn't keep the accounts in sync.

Unless you do this repeatedly, and you are good at keeping things maintained to avoid duplicate entries and such, it becomes a real hassle to keep the set of contacts in sync. So, via the web interface, this becomes really, really cumbersome.

Use a desktop email client

The other approach, actually, doesn't use two different user accounts on your Windows machine.

What you do is:

  • On one user account set up a desktop email program like Thunderbird, or maybe Windows Live Mail, or whatever desktop email program makes sense to you.

  • In that email program you will have one set of contacts.

  • You can then configure that email program to download from two different email accounts. One being yours; the other being your wife's.

Now, the only thing to be aware of, when you do that, is that when you send mail you need to make sure you're sending it from the email account you think you are. That's probably the biggest single issue. When you're composing a new mail making sure you're selecting the right email account to send from.

Replies usually just work. Depending on the email program it will send from whatever account received the email.

Complex solutions

As you can see here, things are getting pretty complex, pretty quick.

Multiple user accounts under Windows 8? To be honest, I'm not aware of a really, really clean solution to do what you want to do. Everything I've described really does boil down to a single user account under Windows (be it 8, 7 or XP or whatever). Then you control the experience either:

  • Via the web using multiple account logins without shared contacts;

  • Or using a desktop email program (like Windows Live Mail or Thunderbird) where you have a single set of contacts shared between the two different accounts - that you happened to download into that single instance of the email program.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6134 - December 13, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
Ashkan
December 13, 2012 2:07 PM

"Go Contact Sync" is a small program which synchronizes Outlook contacts and Gmail's.
May be, you can first sync contacts of the Outlook account with one of the Gmail accounts and then set the program to sync those contacts with the other Gmail account.

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