Two years ago, Brewster was the first of many contacts apps to wrangle all the friends and acquaintances you've gathered across ten different social networks into one place. The 400 friends on Facebook, the 250 on Instagram, the 300 on LinkedIn, and the 100 friends of friends — all inside one app. Brewster did an admirable job collating all your contacts across many services, but hid this utility underneath a gimmicky friendship layer that turned your real relationships into virtual ones. Brewster would rank how close you were with some friends, and tell you when you were falling out of touch with others. The app flopped, and Brewster's employees jumped ship.
Today, Brewster is back with a brand new take on contacts, launching in beta today. The new Brewster uses the same tricks as before to combine contacts across all your networks into one address book — but this time syncs directly with Google or iCloud, so you can continue using the contacts app you're already using. Brewster pulls data from all your social networks and adds photos, jobs, Twitter handles, home pages, and more to the contacts you already have. It's a fundamental change that lets Brewster power your address book instead of asking you to adopt a new one. This way, when you go to send an email, add a friend on Snapchat, or send a text, all your contacts auto-fill from your phone right away. There's not even a Brewster app to download. You simply authorize your Google or iCloud account, and Brewster starts syncing.
It's a risky move. Most free apps and services don't want to be invisible, but according to Brewster CEO Steven Greenwood, it's the only way contact-syncing can actually work. Other apps, from the old Brewster to Smartr to Cobook and even phone app Humin, ask you to open them up all the time to find contacts. Greenwood says this isn't something people actually do. When we want to reach someone, we don't open our contacts app and tap Send Message. We find them inside the communications app we're already using, whether it's Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, or the Mailbox email app. And when we do want to look up someone directly, we search for them within Spotlight on iOS, or within search on Android.
I think Greenwood's approach is dead-on. Reaching someone begins inside communication apps, not inside address books. And now, all your apps include all your contacts across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google, and iCloud. This approach also necessitates that your contact list gets much, much bigger, however. For the most part, a giant contact list isn't annoying. Gmail auto-fills every email address you've ever emailed with, and Brewster aims to make this approach work inside any app.
When we want to reach someone, we don't open our contacts app
In my tests, Brewster successfully pulled in pretty much everyone I've ever contacted across all my networks, but this means I now have 40 different Michaels in my address book. Now, when I try to reach my friend Michael Lewis inside my SMS app, I have to finish typing out his name in order to find him. Greenwood says that Brewster is constantly refining its approach about who to pull in. "We create contacts for those that you have emailed, but not for those who just email you," says Greenwood. "The key benefit of ‘contacts as a service' is that it powers auto-fill and friend-finding in other apps. Having some additional contacts that you don't use as often may come in handy if you are ever looking for that person."
Greenwood's right again, but having everyone I've ever met stored on my phone might take a little getting used to. I also admit that journalists communicate with a far greater number of people than the average person, so your address book will likely look far less cluttered than mine. But once again, how often do we even look at our address books? Yet Brewster has a few kinks to work out, from failed contact merges to odd contacts I've never heard of and some strange pictures of friends. Also, Brewster imprints a company watermark on all the photos it imports, which is a terribly heavy-handed attempt at reminding you what it does. Be sure to back up your contacts either in Gmail or in the Mac's Contacts app before getting started. And remember, the service is still in beta, so expect bugs.
So have we found one contacts app to rule them all? As it turns out, the best contacts app might not be an app at all.