Microsoft's just-released beta of the Outlook Social Connector aims to solve a formidable problem: How to retain Outlook's centrality when social networking sites and services such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have become increasingly important. It largely succeeds.
The Outlook Social Connector is designed to link Outlook to social networks, although at this point, it only communicates with LinkedIn. It is available as a download for Outlook 2003, Outlook 2007 and the beta version of Outlook 2010; all three versions have identical feature sets.
Installing it on Outlook 2003 and 2007 is a simple, two-part process. First you install Outlook Social Connector itself, which gives Outlook the overall capability to communicate with social networking sites. You then install a specific connector for each social networking site.
(Be aware that, in order to run the latest version of the Outlook Social Connector and the associated LinkedIn connector, you first have to uninstall the version of the Outlook Social Connector that came with the beta of Office 2010. For details, go here. And if you're having problems getting it working with Outlook 2010, go to this Help page.)
While only the LinkedIn connector is available, Microsoft has said that connectors will be available for Facebook and MySpace in the first half of 2010. Microsoft has also publicly released an API and an Outlook Social Connector SDK so that developers can build their own connectors. For this review, I tested the Outlook Social Connector on Outlook 2007.
The People Pane
The Outlook Social Connector appears as a horizontal pane -- called the People Pane -- underneath the content of your current e-mail message (in other words, just underneath Outlook's Reading Pane). It not only connects you with social networks, but also serves as a central point for all of your communications with anyone in Outlook.
When you highlight an e-mail, the pane will show you by default a list of all the recent communications between you and the sender or receiver of that e-mail: e-mails, meetings, RSS feeds, attachments and LinkedIn status updates. You can also choose to see only any one type of communications -- only e-mail, for example, or only status updates -- by clicking on icons on the left side of the pane. To view details about any communication -- for example, to see a full email, not just the subject line -- click the link for the content, and it will open in a separate Outlook window.
The People Pane can be turned on and off via Outlook's View menu, and you can change the size of the pane as well.
The People Pane by itself, regardless of its connection to social networks, is a worthy addition to Outlook, because it lets you immediately see all communications with an individual. It's a considerable productivity booster, because there's no longer any need to search for past e-mails you've exchanged with someone -- you can see them all in a list. Even if the Outlook Social Connector added only this feature, it would be worth the download.
Pulling information from social networks
However, the Outlook Social Connector's ability to pull in information from LinkedIn (and, in the future, other social networks) makes it even more useful.
For example, the LinkedIn Social Connector adds a new Outlook Contacts folder composed only of your LinkedIn contacts -- even if you haven't added them to your normal Outlook contact list. The display of contacts in the LinkedIn folder is different from the normal Contacts display -- in the LinkedIn folder you'll see each contact's photo (if they have one on LinkedIn) and other information pulled from LinkedIn. Double-click a contact, and you'll see all their LinkedIn status updates and messages. To visit the LinkedIn page of any contact, click the Web Page address, and you'll be sent there.
This can also be confusing -- you can end up with two copies of contact information for those people you've added as an Outlook contact and who are also part of your LinkedIn network. A good way to solve this would be an option to have the LinkedIn contact information update your normal Outlook contacts.
If someone is not already a contact on LinkedIn, you can click an Add button to request that they become part of your LinkedIn network. However, you need to be careful when using this feature, because you may end up sending a request to someone to join your LinkedIn network even if they're not a member of LinkedIn. It would be better if the Outlook Social Connector checked whether someone was a member of LinkedIn, and allowed you to request that they join your LinkedIn network only if they are.
Where it falls short
The Outlook Social Connector is useful, but it's far from perfect. For example, communication is one-way only -- while you can see updates for your LinkedIn contacts in Outlook, you can't make any updates. You'll still have to visit your LinkedIn page to do that. The Outlook Social Connector would be a far more powerful tool if you could update social networks from within Outlook. For example, it would be exceedingly useful if you were able to send out a Tweet from within Outlook, and have that Tweet posted as updates to all of your social networks.
Another shortcoming is that there is no way to use the Outlook Social Connector to get an overview of all of your network activity. You can use it to see updates on individuals, but there is no single page where you can see all status updates and messages from all your contacts.
The LinkedIn connector provides only a taste of the potential usefulness of the Outlook Social Connector. Once it handles multiple social networks, you will be able to keep track of all of your contacts on all of your social networks without having to visit each site individually. Ultimately, the Outlook Social Connector can potentially become a communications hub, not just an e-mail client.
The Outlook Social Connector also lacks several useful features offered by the free Xobni Outlook add-in, which also connects Outlook to social networks. Xobni pulls more information into Outlook than does the Outlook Social Connector's Reading Pane, such as the contact's title and location. It also lets you preview entire messages, not just subject lines, and does a better job of displaying threads in conversations. Xobni also connects to multiple social networks, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. And Xobni allows two-way communications -- you can post a Twitter update within Outlook, for example.
In case you want to use both the Outlook Social Connector and Xobni at the same time, you can; I use them both and have found no conflicts between them.
The bottom line
Despite some shortcomings, the Outlook Social Connector is a powerful, free add-in to Outlook. The LinkedIn connector available is useful, but when other connectors are released, notably for Facebook, the Outlook Social Connector will become even more important by a significant order of magnitude. And it's useful not just for social networks, but for giving Outlook features it currently lacks, notably an easy way to see all communications you've had with a contact.
Keep in mind that it is still in beta, so be careful about installing it on a production machine. But if you're a user of Outlook 2003, 2007, or a beta user of Outlook 2010, it's well worth the download.