Facebook is, more or less, something unpleasant that I tolerate. It used to have the advantage of at least comparing favorably to MySpace, which I find a user experience nightmare. But with the gradual decline of that network (except among reality TV stars and bands, and reality TV bands), Facebook stands on its own and doesn’t fare nearly as well.
Luckily, Facebook recently opened up its API to allow third-party developers more access to core features, which gives them a chance to rework the web app and deliver something a little easier on the eyes and potentially less frustrating. That’s exactly what Microsoft’s done with its new Silverlight 4 Beta Client for Facebook, available for Windows and Mac. It’s also demonstrated that Microsoft can sometimes make something I actually like.
As you can see from the screenshots below, the Silverlight Facebook client does something visually striking with the content it pulls from Facebook itself. It uses a fairly sparse dark theme with big, easy-to-read type that borrows just enough from the standard web-based Facebook layout that you won’t find yourself hunting for commands and interface elements.
Your main view shows your news feed (the live feed, not the “News Feed,” which is completely useless and should not be the default for any reason). You can filter your news feed results using the same filters you’d find on Facebook.com, which appear down the left-hand side. Commenting and “liking” is enabled in the news feed, and you can post status updates by clicking the “what’s on your mind?” link at the top. Clickable selections from your friends’ photo updates appear slightly blurred on the right-hand side, providing even more functionality.You can also switch to either “grid” or “photos feed” modes. Grid displays your news feed in a columnar view, so that you can see more at once. Photos feed brings the partially-obscured photos backdrop to the fore and displays a mosaic of your friends’ recently uploaded images. It’s quite nice looking, and it provides a way of looking through your contacts’ images that’s far more appealing than Facebook’s standard method.
The photo browsing in general is very cool, and it feels much better checking out albums than it does on the web. The only downside I’ve found is that some albums, for whatever reason, aren’t browsable in the app, because of some setting the uploader has used in creating them.
What really puts this client over the top, in my opinion, is that it gives you access to both Events and your messages. Thanks to the inclusion of both of those features, I no longer have to visit the web-based Facebook at all. You won’t be able to use Facebook chat through the Silverlight app, but there are other solutions for that, too, including some web-based clients and multi-client apps like Beejive for the iPhone (which is what I use).
Other limitations include some control issues –you have to click on a column’s arrows to scroll, instead of using a mouse wheel, for example. This may be a limitation of Silverlight itself, or it could just be because the client is still in an early beta stage at this point, but it does get a bit annoying. You also can’t hide things you don’t want to see without visiting the Facebook web site, and some types of links will take you back to the web, though I didn’t encounter this very often because those are mostly Facebook app links, which I don’t generally use anyway. There are also some obvious bugs, but again, this is an early beta.
By far the most useful aspect of the Silverlight Facebook client is how it treats Facebook more like a CRM system and less like something to use for idle distraction. For example, whenever you view messages between yourself and someone else, it populates the right-hand side of the app with the latest updates, links and photos posted by that person. That way you can refer directly to that contact’s recent activity. It isn’t providing you with any information you can’t get on the web site, but it is combining and presenting it in much more useful ways.
It’s a solid Facebook client, and it makes the service feel much more professional. If you use Facebook during the course of your work, and you aren’t happy with how it works on the web, the Silverlight Client is definitely worth checking out.
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