It was a grueling experience, but now that I invested all that time getting my Outlook Contacts synced up with my smartphone on Day 12, I can move on to checking out the People Hub. The People Hub is one of the things that sets WP7 "Mango" apart from other mobile platforms, but it isn't without its own issues.
In fact, although the title says "pros and cons", I'm going to talk about it as "cons and pros". Let's just get the con out of the way up front so we can focus on the People Hub.
Who Are All These People?
I have a variety of accounts set up in Windows Phone 7 right now. There's my Facebook account, LinkedIn account, the contact information I just imported from Outlook, and my Windows Live ID--which ties in Hotmail, Windows Messenger, and Xbox Live. I could add my Google account, or Yahoo! Mail, Twitter is coming soon, and if Google+ ever leaves perpetual beta I'm sure Microsoft will consider throwing that into the mix as well.
The People Hub pulls all of the contacts and updates into one place, which is great. The problem is that when you mash everything together I have something like 1,400 contacts. My Outlook only has about 400, but the contacts I store in Outlook are different than the network I have established on Facebook, which is different than the network I have built on LinkedIn, etc.
Sure, there is overlap, but these are different networks with different scopes and audiences for a reason. The "con" here is that I have mashed all of these sources together which creates a massive collection of names and contact info that seems a bit unwieldy.
There are also more than a few instances of duplicates. I have friends who are "Andrew" on one network, and "Andy" on another. I can link the profiles to merge them into a single contact, but it is a bit tedious.
Why People Hub Is Awesome
OK, enough whining. Let's move on to the "pros" of what People Hub brings to the table.
• It's a Hub. You may recall that I made a special effort to seek out the Facebook and Twitter apps, and even complained about the lack of a LinkedIn app for Windows Phone 7. The hub concept makes the app a much smaller deal, though.
I love the People Hub because it lets me keep up with people, and connect with people, and share with people rather than focusing on the networks or apps. Just as the Threads feature in Messaging lets me focus on the message rather than the method, the People Hub lets me focus on the people rather than having to choose which social network to engage on and switch to that app.
When I tap on a contact in the People Hub, I can engage with every aspect of my relationship with that contact. Under the Profile tab, I have access to call the person's mobile phone, or home phone, or business phone. I can text message, or instant message, or write a message on the person's Facebook wall, or send an email. I can tap to see any associated websites, review any notes I have recorded for the contact, see the contact's birth date, and even pull up a map of the contact's home address with a simple tap.
If I want to know what's going on with the contact, I can swipe to the left to "turn the page" to the "What's New" tab. This tab displays the status updates and messages the contact has shared with any associated social networks. Mine seems to be filled almost exclusively with Facebook status updates.
Another swipe takes me to the "Pictures" that have been shared by the contact, and one more swipe brings me to "History". The "History" tab is very useful because it is a running log of my interactions with the contact. Looking at the "History" tab for my wife lets me see any emails, phone calls, and other communications we have had.
In a nutshell, the People Hub is exactly what it sounds like it should be: a hub that enables me to connect with and interact with people. It breaks down the barriers between different forms of communication, and different services, and just lets me share and communicate more effectively.
• Filter by Groups. Revisiting my complaint for a second, surfing through 1,400 contacts to find the person I am looking for is not fun. All of the contacts appear in a seemingly endless alphabetically-ordered list.
At the beginning of each new letter of the alphabetic order, though, is a square with the letter in it. Tapping any of those letters brings up a different view which simply displays a grid with all of the letters of the alphabet so you can jump to the one you want instead of having to scroll all the way down to "X", "Y", or "Z".
While jumping to the letter is better than scrolling, what is even better is grouping the contacts. Google has put the concept of segregating online relationships into Circles in the spotlight lately, and I have used the Lists in Facebook to accomplish the same thing for quite a while.
I can create groups within the People Hub to make it easier to find who I am looking for, and make following along with current events and status updates a more manageable process. I have groups for Family, Tech Geeks, Infosec, PCWorld, and PR people.
The group gives me a much shorter list of contacts to scroll through to find who I am looking for. Granted, if I know the person's name it is not really any easier to tap the group and then tap the person than it would be to navigate to the letter of the alphabet on the longer list. But, it is awesome to be able to view the "What's New" tab broken down by group and see only updates from my family, or only updates from other tech geeks.
A quick side note as I wrap up. At the top of the main People Hub view is my Facebook profile picture along with my most recent communication--currently a message I recently retweeted on Twitter. Tapping my profile picture takes me directly to the "Me" tile so I can post a message, or check-in to a location.
The pros definitely outweigh the cons here. The "con" of merging all of my networks and contacts together is really just a matter of logistics. Once I clean up duplicates in the contact list, and create groups to help me segregate the people some, the fact that I can do all of my interacting with the people in my life from this one live tile rather than having to jump from app to app.
That said, there is still a need for the apps. The People Hub gives me simplified access to see what's new in terms of the updates my contacts are posting, or for me to post a new status update myself, but the other features and functions of a social network like Facebook are still missing.
I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with that, or that Microsoft or Facebook should try to change that. The simplicity of the People Hub is one of its virtues. I am just pointing out that there is room for both the People Hub and the individual apps.