Hands on with Brewster: Can it evolve the address book?

brewster homeOn the surface, newly launched iPhone app Brewster sounds a lot like the plethora of grouping apps that aim to clean up and socialize your smartphone contact list. But Brewster is a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B: it’s a dynamic approach to the contact list that makes a feature we overlook incredibly interesting and many times more engaging.

Before I go into hands-on details, a little more on the app itself. Basically, Brewster combines the functionality of your address book and pulls data about your contacts from your social networks. The idea is that adding some designations and media to this database will make it more useful than the simple list that it is. Of course you could argue that something as utilitarian as a list of contacts can remain in its natural – listed – form.

Setup

setupIf you’ve ever used an app that pulls your friends’ info from various social networks, then Brewster will run you through a familiar process. After initially logging in with either Facebook or Twitter and providing the corresponding email address, you then connect nearly any service you want; Foursquare, LinkedIn, Gmail, etc. There’s also the option to connect your iPhone contacts, and in order to get the full experience of what Brewster wants to do, you should go ahead and grant this permission.

Brewster will then tell you it’s building your network and ask you come back later – it took about five minutes for this to work for me, but if you’re much more popular than I am it could take longer (for instance, social butterfly Robert Scoble is still waiting). From there, you’re ready to start customizing and using Brewster.

Use

Unfortunately, this is where I hit a number of tangles. The first place Brewster deposits you post setup is Favorites. Here, you get a really overwhelming view of all the contacts you’ve gathered using the setup process. So if you’re only connecting Twitter and your iPhone, it might be more manageable; since I connected nearly every service I could, the results were a little more cumbersome.

As I was scrolling through to pick the people I most often interact with, I came across the issue of multiple designations for one person. On Facebook some of my friends have their new married names; but in my phone it’s their old name. I use nicknames for my sisters, which obviously aren’t how they represent themselves on social networks. I wasn’t sure which to choose. Luckily, when you go into an individual’s page, you can edit information and there’s a merge option, which lets you grab another set of contact information. If you’re like me and came across multiple instances of this, it could take awhile, but the merge feature worked well.

merge feature

The whole process of choosing got a little tiring, as I realized there was no way I would take the time to thoroughly go through this mountain of information to select the contacts I interacted with most. Once I decided on this, though, I was disappointed to find that my Favorites dash wasn’t the lovely visual I thought it would be. The app is supposed to display tiles of your contacts’ photos with their names – but my own had nothing but the gray on black Brewster avatar.

favesI reached out to Brewster’s support team (which I’m happy to say is using Zendesk and working very efficiently) to ask why this was. And the answer is what you’d expect: thanks to the media firestorm swirling around Brewster since yesterday’s launch, the servers are trying to handle the heavy load, which means image loading could take awhile. As I started interacting with my contacts, however, and merging some, images slowly started to fill up the dash.

The updates tab is supposed to show you “who’s in town, now working in your industry, trending in your life, losing touch, & more,” and honestly was the feature that really piqued my interest in Brewster. Having a system that quantifies these things is interesting to me, if nothing more than for its organizational element. Unfortunately, it never worked. Over the course of the day, every time I checked the tab I was greeted by the feature’s description and refreshing it did no good. (I reached out to Brewster to talk about this as well and was told the team is hard at work fixing bugs here as I type this.)

The Search and Lists tabs are interesting, although I didn’t find myself using them a particularly large amount. This is where you’ll want to find everyone who didn’t make the Favorites cut, personally I found Search to be the easiest way to do so (it was a reliable fast way to get the contact I was looking for). Of course you don’t only have to search by name – try weird things like “beer” or “Summer league” (it’s Friday, you know where my head is at) and you’ll get results.

Lists sort of work like Facebook Friends Lists. A few are automatically created based on listed education, location, occupation information, etc. The most interesting auto list is Most Mutual Connections, which is a group of people you share lots of similar friends with – I can see myself getting a lot of use out of this particular list. You also have the option of making your own.

Interface

This will be sort: once your images start loading and you undertake the massive task of merging contacts, Brewster is gorgeous. The big images set against a minimalist design is perfect for what Brewster is trying to achieve here. I don’t want my contacts hub to be totally tricked out; it needs to retain some of its utilitarianism. After all, it is where I’m going to go to text and call and email people (or at least that’s what Brewster wants). It does this while also offering you something more interesting to look at than the default iPhone address book (talk about a low bar) or most of the alternatives I’ve seen.

That whole privacy breach thing

Brewster is barely a day old and already it’s responding to a privacy breach. In a blog post, the company explains that it became away that some Foursquare data was leading users to see information they weren’t supposed to.

“One unfortunate problem that arose was for Foursquare users who were fans, but not friends, of other Foursquare users. Even further, Foursquare only offers the ability to be fanned to an extremely small number of users. In this case, if we had the contact information from a full Foursquare friend, we briefly displayed their contact information to fans. This happened with one user who was fans of multiple people on Foursquare.”

TechCrunch pointed out that a number of well-knowns had their information briefly available, but the problem has since been fixed.

Not much more needs to be said about this. As is the case with nearly every social application, there are bugs. What happened here isn’t even close to the degree of the fallout of the Path privacy debacle and the ensuing insanity over Addressgate.  

Verdict

Right now, Brewster is buggy. That’s to be expected given the major amount of attention it received at launch as well as the sheer expanse of data it’s trying to help you organize. So if you install Brewster today, be prepared to muddle through some of the same hiccups I did.

But the tease I got from my limited use of Brewster of what it can be (or hopefully, will be) is inspiring. It gives a little more life to using my phone for basic tasks, and I’m still interested to see what this Updates dash will be like.

For the moment, you’ll have to weather the storm while Brewster irons out the kinks and put a bit of effort into manually setting the thing up, but if this thing can delivery post launch glitches, then it remains a compelling download.

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