On the iPhone, Apple has done little to bring much innovation to its contact management solution. Contacts.app does provide address book functionality, and will even connect directly to Facebook when iOS 6 launches, but it really offers little more than what a lot of feature phones do with their digital phonebooks. Enter Brewster, a new app that takes a unique approach to organizing your contacts and connections, the product of seven years of thinking about how to make people the central focus of an online address book.
Brewster, named after founder Steven Greenwood’s childhood street, is designed to work like the digital equivalent of that street, by taking your digital connections and building an actual community out of them, one where you might easily bump into someone and find an excuse to catch up. That’s getting pretty conceptual, but Brewster really does attempt to humanize online relationships across networks in a way that provides opportunity for discovery, interaction and relationship-building.
“When you look at what Brewster is today, it’s our aspiration to combine this unique and cutting-edge technology to pull in all this data and do all this amazing stuff, but to make it like that address book that’s in your mom’s kitchen,” Greenwood explained in an interview. “It’s a service-based management system; it understands your relationships, by leveraging the social web.”
With Brewster, users sign in to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Gmail, and can also authorize the app to access their iPhone’s contact list. The app spends some time crunching data from all those sources, and then generates a comprehensive address book that draws images, links, phone numbers and more. Users can set favorites, see people they’ve interacted with recently, search and create lists from their contacts. All of those are arguably features that have been available elsewhere in other contact aggregation tools, ranging from Hachi to Android’s built-in contact management app, however.
But the app’s real difference is in its ability to distill meaningful insights from your relationships online, via an Updates section and Smart Lists. Smart Lists identifies groups of contacts based on things like profession, friends in common, and workplace, and Updates provides essentially an actionable timeline to help you monitor and maintain your relationships, sort of like an active Facebook Timeline or friendship barometer. Haven’t heard from someone in a while? Brewster will let you know you’re in danger of losing touch, giving you the opportunity to rekindle that friendship or circle back on a forgotten professional opportunity.
It’ll also tell you things like which of your friends are connecting on various social services, who’s in town or who’s changing careers, and which of your contacts are trending in your life. And because it’s looking at information from a variety of social sources, it should be much more generally useful than any individual network’s “People You May Know” or “Shared Connections” features, not to mention the fact that it offers up insights you can’t necessarily glean from anywhere else. Ultimately, all of these services are designed to help people’s relationships evolve in the way of their choosing, across and beyond individual networks and services.
“We know so many people today, even over the last generation it’s grown exponentially and it’s continuing to do so,” Greenwood said. “We have all these contexts by which we meet people and we know people, you know we share interests or cities or jobs, and then we have all these services we use to communicate and share…and it’s great, but what we want to do to help handle this is be who you know, and help you discover and find who you’re looking for, and then seamlessly connect you with the services.”
Brewster is available free on the iOS App Store, and Greenwood said that the startup is focused on building value for its users and growing adoption first and foremost. That’s something he says investor Fred Wilson (Wilson contributed to the company’s seed funding, the full details of which it’s keeping under wraps for now) has a history of valuing, and Greenwood agrees that it should come before any definite monetization strategies. But he did suggest that there might be ways for Brewster to deliver marketing to its users in the future within the app, so long as it’s done in a way that clearly adds value for the user. The one thing he says the company will never do is sell the information it gathers about users to advertisers, a point worth emphasizing about an app that basically seeks to know as much about you as it can.
Functionality aside, Brewster is an app where you can tell a lot of attention has been paid to interface design and user experience. On the iPhone, Apple’s address book isn’t exactly one of the company’s killer applications, either, so a smart replacement that’s attempting to bring some fresh innovation to the business of managing your online connections seems like an area worthy of attention.