Filtering my phone contacts with AWK

A few weeks ago I changed my Android cellphone for a newer one. I needed to import my old phone's contacts into the new phone. Since I don't use cloud storage solutions because of privacy reasons, I had to import the contacts manually, using vCard .vcf files.

Some years ago, when I still used Google services on my phone, the Gmail app decided to create a phone contact for each user I have emailed to. This created a lot of useless contacts. Contacts for whom I don't even know their phone number, only their e-mail. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be quite annoying. I couldn't easily get rid of these new contacts, so I kept them even though I knew I wouldn't use them.

Since I was already changing my phone, it was a good occasion to finally delete all of these useless contacts. To do this, I would need to:

  • Export my old phone contacts into a .vcf file
  • Find or create a tool allowing me to programmatically delete the contacts without a phone number
  • Save the output into a new .vcf file, ready for import into my new phone

In order to write the tool to filter contacts, I would need to parse a .vcf file. Normally, I would have used Python to address the problem. I could have relied on an external library and trust it didn't have any bugs or vulnerabilities. Or maybe I could create my own .vcf/vCard parsing library, properly tested and documented. However, both options looked very complicated for the problem I intended to resolve. There had to be a simpler solution.

A .vcf file has the following format:

N:First Name;Last name;;;
FN:Visible Name
FN:Other contact

As you can see, the details of each contact are delimited by the lines BEGIN:VCARD and END:VCARD. The .vcf format doesn't look complicated. It is just plain text delimited by formatted lines.

Taking into account that .vcf files were simple, and that I only wanted to filter through my contact list once, I used AWK instead of Python. The AWK language is relatively small, and you can learn it in a few hours. Its Wikipedia page looks good enough as an introduction.

I took another look at the problem I wanted to solve, and built the following AWK program:

# lines will save the lines of the contact being processed into an array.
# n represents the length of the lines array. It will increment on each
# iteration.
    lines[n++] = $0; # This is like append in Python

/^TEL;/ {
    # The contact being processed has a phone number, so I want to keep it
    has_phone_number = 1

/^END:VCARD/ { # I reached the end of the contact

    # If the contact had a phone number, keep it (print all the saved lines)
    if (has_phone_number)
        for (i=0; i<n; i++)
            print lines[i]

    # In the next iteration I'll use a different contact. Reset the program's
    # state.
    has_phone_number = 0
    n = 0 # This is like emptying the lines array

I ran the program with awk -f program.awk <unfiltered-contacts.vcf >filtered-contacts.vcf. This created a new .vcf file that only contained the contacts with a phone number. It was ready to be imported into my new cellphone.

With just 13 lines of code (discarding comments and blank lines), I made a program that solved my problem perfectly. I didn't overthink it by installing external libraries, creating big class hierarchies, nor making complex file parsers.

It looks like I was way more productive using a 40-year old language than using Python, my go-to language for most problems. Because AWK is intended to be used for handling text files and writing throwaway programs, it was the perfect fit for my problem. Maybe the code wasn't very maintainable, but I don't have to care about it if I planned to discard the program after it ran successfully. I needed a quick solution, and AWK succeeded at it.

I hope that with this short blogpost I explained the essence of the AWK language. It is a fundamental tool for programmers and sysadmins. You can learn the language in a few hours, and it will definitely be a productivity boost.

Here are a few useful resources I used when learning AWK:

There also exists a book about the language written by their authors. I can't recommend it since I haven't read it yet. But in case the resources above make you want to learn more, this book will probably be a great choice.



Comments powered by Disqus