Review: Brewster looks nice, but that’s about it

Brewster is a new contact management app for the iPhone. It’s got a nice interface that kind of looks like Microsoft’s Metro design and Square. Unfortunately, good looks aren’t all that make an app, and Brewster suffers from some big UX and privacy issues.

The wait

My initial experience with Brewster was one of the worst I’ve had with an app. It didn’t start out all bad. I started the app up, connected my social media accounts, authorized it to use my iPhone contacts and location, allowed Push Notifications, and ran through a quick tour of the app. When I reached the end of the tour things turned sour. I was told that I would have to wait for my account to be set up on the app’s servers before I could actually use it.

The developers assured me on Twitter that my account would be ready soon and that the experience would be worth the wait.

This seems understandable since they were getting hammered with new app installations. However, over the next few hours, it went from being reasonable to being frustrating. An hour later my account still had not been created, and I wondered if their claim was actually true or not.

Finally, at 10 PM, more than ten hours after I initially installed the app, I received a push notification that my account was ready to use. By the time I got the notification, I actually to stop and ask myself what app was sending this notification because I had already forgotten what “Brewster” meant.

Long-lost brother

The notification informing me that my account was ready to use was probably a pretty big overstatement. When I opened the app it had a grid of my contacts from Facebook, Twitter, and my built-in phone book. I was supposed to select the ones I wanted to put on my ‘favorites’ list. I started scrolling through the list and realized that only five people even had profile photos, all pulled from Twitter, and that none of my built-in phonebook’s contacts were appearing. In fact, most of my Facebook and Twitter friends were missing as well. Notably, my own brother, who is in both my Facebook and iPhone contact lists under separate names (he uses his middle name as his last name on Facebook) was inexplicably missing.

I searched for him in my full Brewster contact list but he just didn’t show up. People I haven’t talked to in over a year showed up, but not my own brother. He’s listed as my brother on my Facebook account and in my iPhone contacts. His contact card has the same last name as mine. Yet he was missing. I don’t understand how an account that took ten hours to create somehow managed to leave my brother (and about 80% of my other contacts) out entirely, and only managed to grab profile photos for five of them (none of which came from my iPhone contacts, which were entirely missing from the list at this point).

Leaving so soon?

I was pretty disappointed with the app at this point. I decided it would be best if I just removed my Facebook account to clear out the clutter of the people I haven’t talked to in a long time and just keep my iPhone contacts, and maybe my Twitter friends, on the list. I headed over to the “Me” tab and tapped on the Facebook button. Nothing happened. I tapped it again. I tapped and help. I swiped. I pinched. I started mashing my fingers all over the screen hoping some random gesture would accidentally trigger the account deletion interface. I had no such luck. I still have no idea how to remove the contacts pulled from Facebook and Twitter. In fact, I can’t even disconnect my iPhone address book. I don’t know how to get any of these people out of my Brewster list short of manually deleting every single one of them.

Privacy matters

OK, I’ll just use this button to deactivate my account, clear my data, and start over, I thought to myself. I hit the button, which warned me that all of my private data would be removed. This was exactly what I wanted, so I confirmed. After the deletion, I was brought back to the main sign-in screen. I pressed the button to login with Twitter and it automatically brought up the exact same account I just had. This frustrated me to no end. I remembered this tweet by @chronic from earlier in the day.

Unfortunately, deactivating your account only removes your private data from your phone, not the app’s servers. This is a gross oversight in the area of user privacy, and I for one am very unhappy about it. I imagine most users who deactivate their accounts will assume that their data is being securely deleted from the company’s servers, not left there in case you ever decide to come back. There was no other button to remove the data from the servers, and I assume that in order to have it completely removed, I would have to contact the developers. Even then there is no guarantee that they will remove it.

On top of all of this, TechCrunch reports that the app accidentally exposed the private information of several users, including some high-profile ones, such as Ashton Kutcher. This does not inspire much confidence in would-be users of any app, but seems especially dubious in an app that does not allow users to remove their private data from the company’s server. At any time, a glitch or hacking could lead to my contacts and my personal data being exposed to anyone who wants it, and there is nothing I can do about it. With the recent breaches at social networks like Yahoo! and Formspring, I am not all that optimistic about the security of online services these days.

Update: I opened the app today to find my entire account had seemingly been erased. I tried logging in with Twitter and was asked to go through the account creation process again. I’m not sure if this is a fluke or if my data was finally removed from the server. Either way, my points here remain the same.

But wait, there’s more!

I closed the app and forgot about it. At 11 AM the next morning, I opened it back up and found that suddenly half of my contacts had photos (but still not all of them), and that my brother was showing on both Facebook and my built-in contacts (and in fact all of my built-in contacts had finally decided to show up). This was about twenty-four hours after I installed the app. I have no idea why anyone’s servers had to be involved in this. It’s not hard for the app to use the Twitter and Facebook APIs to pull my complete contact list, including all of their information and photos, instantly. It should also not be difficult for the app to load my existing iPhone address book. There are APIs in iOS for that. It doesn’t need to be uploaded to a server, re-downloaded to the device, and then get lost somewhere in the shuffle.

The verdict

Brewster has a nice design, but that’s about the only thing it has going for it. The interface is a bit cluttered on some screens but is usable. Unfortunately, the experience is marred by ludicrous wait times before you can use it (some reported much faster activation times, but the majority of the feedback I saw was largely the same as mine), privacy concerns, incomplete accounts, and other user experience issues. Everything that took over twenty-four hours (and still hasn’t finished yet) could have been done almost instantly without the need for the app to use its own servers, and the “unique” account created during the wait is nothing more than an aggregation of social media contacts automatically merged with your iPhone contacts based on the contact’s first and last name.

Overall, I can’t recommend Brewster in its current state. The groundwork is solid but there is still more work to be done before the app is usable.