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.