Managing "contacts" has been a bit of a challenge for many, especially as the number of places that contacts can be stored and the number of PCs and devices we use to access those contacts has increased.  Storing contacts in the cloud for easy roaming and connectivity is a part of the solution.  With Windows 8 and the new People app, we are taking cloud storage a step further by optionally connecting it to other services you already use. This brings together email contacts and contacts from your service / social accounts in one easy to access and use place that roams across your Windows 8 PCs and phone. 

In this post, Jeff Kunins, a group program manager on the Windows Live team, details the People app. This is the first of a series of posts on the new service-connected apps that are currently in App Preview.  --Steven


Modern devices come with an address book or contact list because the people we communicate and share with are so important to how we use those devices. Email, texting, phone and video calls, social updates and comments – these are but a few of the people-based activities we do with the phones, PCs, and tablets we use every day. With Windows 8 we set out to meet this fundamental need with a new kind of contact experience: the People app.

The People app in Windows 8 is a modern take on the flat contact lists of the past–it’s built for the way you communicate today, and it’s connected to the cloud services you already use. The People app connects to your email and social accounts, bringing together all your contacts (and what they’re up to) in one convenient place. Windows 8 Consumer Preview users have already used the People app millions of times and received millions of social notifications on its live tiles. We are proud of the early enthusiasm for our approach, and thankful for everyone’s helpful feedback on how we can improve this early preview version. We thought we would take some time to share more of our perspective on the modern social address book, and how our point of view is driving the evolution of the People app in Windows 8.

Modern devices like Windows 8 and Windows Phone require an address book that's crafted around four simple principles:

  1. Complete & Connected – All your personal and work contacts are there, alive with their social activities and photos, letting you instantly engage and react to them. Data syncs from your email and social accounts rather than getting this info from a one-time import, and you get a simple unified contact card for each person, regardless of how many versions of their contact info you have from different accounts.
  2. Designed for Windows 8 – On modern devices the address book is a core part of the overall experience, therefore it is important to design it with the whole system in mind. The People app follows Metro style design principles so it is fast and fluid, and it works together with all your other apps through the Share and Picker contracts.
  3. Cloud-powered – your contacts and settings are effortlessly backed up, so “they just work” when you sign in from a new device, or even from the web. And when you pin a contact to your Start screen, the live tile lights up with real-time notifications about new photos, comments, and tweets.
  4. In control – you decide what you share with whom across your home, work, and social networks. And of course, those networks decide what information is shared and connected, respecting their policies and customer privacy.

Here’s a short video illustrating these principles in the People app:


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Complete & Connected

We’ve talked before about how people should be able to connect the services they already use, without needing to re-spam their friends with invitations. For many years, one of the primary ways that you got contact data into an email account or a social network was to import your contacts (and in some cases, import, and then re-invite them) from another account. This even holds true for mobile phones—how many people do you know who have delayed buying a new phone just to avoid the crazy hassle of “transferring” the contacts from the old phone to the new one?

Many of us have had this problem at least partially solved with smart phones that sync our email accounts—but it should just work for everyone, with one easy place for all our contacts and all our accounts.

So, the People app does this. It uses Exchange ActiveSync, as well as the secure, standards-based APIs (OAuth, REST, etc.) exposed by our partners like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to sync a copy of your contact list from the cloud. It’s always up to date with new friends you add (and respects deletions if you un-friend them :-)), so you don’t have the problems of a brittle one-time import.

  Accounts pane open in the People app, with options to connect to Microsoft, Exchange, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn or Twitter

Connecting accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Exchange

Once your contacts are in the People app, we give you a beautifully tailored experience where you can see and comment on their social activities and photos, view their contact details, or send them a message via whatever service you and that contact have in common. Whether you’re browsing the summary of “What’s new” across your contacts and networks, or just looking at a specific contact, it’s easy to catch up and stay connected.

Favorite people appear on large tiles on left, the rest of the contact list, appears at right.

Main contact list view features large tiles for your favorite contacts

Letter A through Z appear on tiles in the People app

Windows 8 “semantic zoom” lets you quickly pinch to navigate your contact list

 

Contact card for Omar Shahine has commands to send mail, send message (Messenger), Map address, View profile (Google), along with several social updates from Omar.

    Looking at a single contact gets you their contact info and what they’re up to

    Whats new view of People app shows updates from several Twitter contacts including VentureBeat, Lot18, and TechmemeTap “What’s new” for an at-a-glance summary from your social networks

    A photo of a chalkboard, with several comments about the photo.
Looking at a single social update lets you see all the comments and add to them

One challenge that any modern address book like the People app needs to handle is duplicates—we all tend to be friends with and have info on a given person from many different accounts. For example, I have contacts for my friend Omar Shahine in Exchange and Hotmail, we’re friends on Facebook and colleagues on LinkedIn, and of course I follow him on Twitter.

The People app – just like Windows Phone and Hotmail – automatically detects that all of these contacts are the same human being (my friend Omar), and presents them to me as a single “linked” contact with all the data together in one place, on one tile, etc. And very importantly, it does this without messing with any of the underlying source data.

We do our best to get this “right” automatically, but recognizing that we can’t be perfect, we want users to be able to edit and add/remove their own links. We already provide this on Hotmail and Windows Phone, and we’ll be adding that to the Windows 8 version over time.

By connecting multiple accounts and linking your duplicate contacts, we’re able to create a contact card for everyone in your address book, regardless of how you’re connected to them. So, at a glance I can see a quick summary, and then I’m one click away from common tasks – sending an email, starting a chat, getting map information, finding a phone number or address, or just browsing through their recent activity.

Designed for Windows 8

A second principle we followed was to design the app to take advantage of the power of Windows 8. Unlike other systems, in Windows 8, apps can connect to other apps and to the OS itself through APIs that we call contracts. This means not only are the built-in applications like Mail and Messaging powered by People’s contact list – so are the other apps you install on your Windows 8 device.

One of the highlights of the Metro style Start screen are all the tiles that are alive with activity and provide one-touch access to the apps and content you’re interested in. The People app takes advantage of the secondary tiles feature, which lets you have additional tiles that immediately link to that part of the underlying app. So, when I pin contacts like TechMeme, Top Chef, my wife, and my friend Omar to my Start screen, it’s just one tap to get right to their contact info and activity, and one more touch to send them mail or look at their latest photos.

Cropped view of Start screen with tiles for several contacts, each one showing a profile picture. Techmeme has a tile that shows a snippet of their latest tweet.
Also new since the Consumer Preview is that the People app now supports the Share contract, allowing you to post to Facebook or Twitter from any Windows 8 app, including Internet Explorer. So, just by connecting your accounts to the People app, with a few quick touches you can share your latest favorite article with your friends and followers.

The Obama Biden website, with Share charm overlaid on right side of screen. Share charm includes options to Post to Facebook, or share via the People or Mail apps.

Engadget website, with People app interface overlaid on right side of screen.

Any Windows 8 app (like IE) can use the Share charm to let you post to Facebook and Twitter

Lastly, another great feature is the People picker contract—with this, any Windows 8 app can speed up simple tasks like sending a package from a website or emailing a list of friends by letting you quickly select contacts from the People app. And unlike a silent, full-access API, this never happens without bringing up the system-brokered user experience that you’re in control of.

Contact list with 3 contacts selected and buttons to Add or Cancel.

Compose screen in the Mail app, with the 3 contacts added to the To: box.

Any app can invoke the People Picker, letting you choose contacts to use

Cloud-powered

None of the features we’ve talked about so far would be possible if the app and your device weren’t cloud-powered, so we can sync data from your various accounts and display it within the app. But if all of your data and settings were solely managed by the “client” app itself (like a traditional mobile phone or email app), then you’d have a few problems: (1) once you set this up on one device like your phone, you’d have to do it all over again when you got a new PC at home or at work, (2) you wouldn’t get any of the benefits of this unified experience when you were at someone else’s machine just using a web browser, and (3) when services like Facebook or LinkedIn evolve their APIs you’d have to upgrade to a new version of the app before things would work right again.

Our approach is to use your Microsoft account and the cloud to safely cache your settings, so that when you go to a new device or even access your contact list from the web , things will still “just work” as you’d expect. Additionally, we make many of the API calls to networks like Facebook and Twitter from the cloud, so that we can often adjust to how those APIs evolve without making everyone update to a new version of the app.

A great example of how you benefit from the cloud is that the People app remembers your connection to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, no matter what device you sign in from. Over 50 million people have already connected social networks to their Microsoft account through their use of social features in Windows 8, Windows Phone, Hotmail, Messenger, and SkyDrive. Every one of those people, when they sign in to a new Windows 8 PC for the very first time, will automatically have their People app populated with their complete, connected, cloud-powered address book.

Being cloud-powered means that not only do you have an always up-to-date copy of your contact list on your device, but that your People app tile and tiles for your pinned contacts automatically light up with the latest notifications from your social networks. For example, when someone comments on the photos you just posted, the People app tile (and the “Me” Notifications tab in the app itself) will animate with that update and encourage you to take a look. Similarly, each time one of your pinned contacts does something new, their tile will show that activity.

4 square tiles: Techmeme, Top Chef, Allrcipes.com, VentureBeat, and one larger rectangular tile for Ann Wallace. Square tiles show the latest status updates scrolling up from bottom. Larger tile is static, and shows latest update next to the profile picture.

In control

Of course, we respect the policies of each data source we connect to – for example, the People app doesn’t currently sync any Exchange data to the cloud. This ensures that data that is governed by your employer’s policies aren’t even temporarily cached in a third-party data center, even though it also means you have to set up your Exchange accounts separately on each device and you can’t get to them from contacts.live.com. Similarly, Facebook has different policies for syncing contacts’ email addresses and phone numbers on specific mobile apps vs. other devices and the web. So, to get Facebook contacts on your Windows Phone you connect it separately in order to have that additional data available to you in the People app on Windows Phone. Twitter also has smart, specific policies regarding how tweets are displayed, which are important to get right.

We also recognize that each person uses their address book and networks in slightly different ways. So we put you in control of what you share with which network and individuals on the network. For example, when you connect Facebook you can decide to connect just the address book, or additional features like instant messaging.

Moving forward

We’re excited to see the initial response to our point of view that modern devices should come with a complete, connected, and cloud-powered address book that you’re in control of. We hope you enjoy the key additions we’ve been able to add so far since the Consumer Preview, such as Semantic Zoom and letting you share to people you know on Facebook and Twitter from any Windows 8 app that uses the Share contract.

--Jeff Kunins