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Windows 8 Feature Focus: People (App Preview)

When I was briefed about the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft drove home one point repeatedly in a bid, I think, to curtail an obvious coming point of criticism: Many of the apps that are bundled with the Consumer Preview are nowhere near completion and are thus marked as App Previews. The new contacts management solution, called People, is one such App Preview. And in its current form, it's a good example of what they were worried about.


Before getting into the specifics of the first app preview, the People app, let's discuss why this and the other app previews are not as feature-complete and refined as the OS itself. According to Microsoft, it's simply a matter of timing.


"Don't draw any conclusions about Windows 8 based on these App Previews," I was told a few weeks before the Consumer Preview launched. "The platform was only stabilized in the past few months, and it takes a while for the apps to get to the same level of quality. By RTM, they will be great. But in the Consumer Preview, they all are much less far along than is Windows. They're just a taste of the directions these apps will take."


"We launched our Windows 8 developer opportunity at BUILD [in September 2011] ," I was told in a separate briefing. "That was true for our own developers too. So we're not done with these apps yet, they're not as far ahead as the OS is. But even in App Preview form, they're very compelling."


Some of them are.


The People app is part of a collection of Windows Live apps that also includes Mail, Calendar, Photos, Music, and Videos. As such, these apps will not in fact be included as "part" of Windows 8 but will instead be offered separately, much as Windows Live Essentials is today. But like Essentials, it's fair to say that these apps will simply come with Windows 8 from the perspective of most users, since most PC makers will include these apps--as well as related apps from Bing--on their machines. And others who want them will be able to get them for free from the Windows Store.


Of course, Microsoft didn't explicitly state this in my Consumer Preview meetings. But it's not hard to read between the lines.


"We're not talking about whether these apps will be in the OS yet," I was told. "The Consumer Preview apps represent a complete Windows experience. The apps you'll play with will be a large part of the windows experience on a large number of users' PCs."


With that out of the way, what exactly does People offer to the Windows 8 user? Obviously, it's a contacts management app. And equally obviously, it's based on the People hub that appeared first in Windows Phone, aggregating contacts from multiple accounts into a single place.


The People app (App Preview version)


Under the covers, People--like Mail and Calendar--interacts with the system-wide accounts functionality, so this is one of several places where you can add new accounts to the system. That is, accounts you add from People are propagated, where it makes sense, in Mail, Calendar, and elsewhere. (The reverse is also true.) But where Mail and Calendar offer a relatively short list of acceptable account types, People offers several, including some that are, for now at least, unique to this solution.


Configurable account types include Facebook (contacts, what's new and photos), Google (Gmail contacts), Hotmail (contacts, Windows Live what's new), Exchange (including Office 365 and Exchange Active Sync, or EAS; contacts), LinkedIn (contacts), Twitter (through Windows Live; contacts, tweets, and photos).




The People app, like all Metro apps, is a full-screen experience. It provides three basic views, All, What's new, and Me, and has been designed to accommodate a Snap experience in which People is the the secondary, snapped, app, and used side-by-side with another app or the Windows desktop.  In its current form, People offers little in the way of customization, with the Settings pane (WINKEY + I) offering only accounts management and a very simple permissions interface in this version.


Contacts management occurs largely through the primary view, called All. Here, you'll see your contacts arranged alphabetically, with favorites pinned to the front of the list and given more visual prominence. You can skip easily through long lists of contacts by tapping a letter--for example, tapping "T" will jump the view to the contacts that start with "T"--but that's about it. And while People will automatically aggregate identical contacts from multiple accounts, it offers no interface to do this manually, as with Windows Phone. (At least not in this version.)


You can edit existing contacts, add new contacts (and assign them to the account of your choice), add contacts to favorites, and pin individual contacts to the Start screen. That latter option isn't particularly rich, at least not yet.


You can also search for contacts using the system-wide Search contract (WINKEY + Q), which works from both within the app and from anywhere else in the system: Just choose People from the list of apps in the Search pane to redirect your current search to that app and thus to contacts. Nice!


There's also one sort-of hidden feature: You can right-click any contact and choose "Send an email" from the small pop-up menu that appears. Doing so will fire up the default email app (or application), which could be Mail, Microsoft Outlook, or any other application you prefer.


The What's new view works as it does on Windows Phone, providing a single, handy, and centralized way for you to keep up with the activities your friends, family members, and other contacts are engaged in, regardless of where that information was posted. What’s new provides a decidedly Metro-y take on this sort of information, with each post segregated into a tile-like space. Scrolling occurs horizontally—that is, left to right—and not vertically, as with document-based applications. And while the app will refresh this view periodically, you can refresh it yourself by enabling the app bar and clicking the Refresh button.




Frankly, What's new is currently kind of a waste of space, and I'd expect this interface to get prettier and more useful over time. But even in its current form, it's interactive, so you can leave comments, "like" items, or "retweet" them, depending on which service was used under the covers. To do any of this, find a post you like and click it. It will display full screen, providing a more complete view that includes others’ comments as well as whatever actions are available.




You can also get contact-specific "What's new" functionality: Just select a contact and on their contact card, you'll see that contact's details, what's new list and photos, all in a single view, which is nice.




Finally, People offers a third view, Me, that provides you with a front-end to your own digital persona. In this view, you can see and edit your own contact information via the All info button, view your own What’s new feed, which is culled from whatever online accounts you’ve configured, view and deal with pending notifications, and view the photos you’ve recently posted to social networks and other accounts.



Final thoughts

In Consumer Preview guise, the People app, like the other App Preview, is horribly incomplete, unattractive, and hard to use. Some obvious options, like managing an account--and not just adding or deleting one--are simply missing, and some of the interfaces seem graphically incomplete. But if you've used Windows Phone, you can see where Microsoft is heading with this app, and you know how useful it can be. I suspect it will be equally useful on Windows 8, whenever it's completed, of course.

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