A beta version of Twitter for Windows Phone 8.1 leaked this week, providing an answer to some questions I was just going to pose about social networking integration in Windows Phone. With this release, we can see a version of Twitter that works like the Facebook app for .1, one that integrates deeply with the system in a now-consistent way. And that's a good thing.
But first, those questions I had.
I've been testing Windows Phone 8.1 on a wide variety of devices and with a variety of Microsoft accounts, which has revealed some subtleties of this new OS. Among them is a profound change in the way that social media accounts—and apps—can work and integrate with the system. This is quite different from how things worked in Windows Phone 8 (and previous), and it appears to be quite an improvement as well.
The new system is called the Social Extensibility Framework. It lets developers create apps for social networking services (and, I'd imagine, any account- or community-based online services) that can integrate with Windows Phone in new ways. This system provides the following features:
Single sign-in. You sign in to the app and the OS integration features are available automatically. In Windows Phone 8 and previous, you had to sign into these accounts through Email + Accounts settings and separately install and sign into the service's standalone app to get the full functionality.
People hub integration. Apps that use this Social Extensibility Framework integrate into Windows Phone's contacts management system, the People hub, in several unique and useful ways. This includes the availability of any contacts you have in those services and "What's New" feed integration, of course. But it also includes integration with a new "Connect" page that appears in contact cards, letting you reach out to a contact using a connected social network. Apps couldn't do any of this before.
Photos hub integration. Apps can now integrate with the Photos hub, so that you can access photos you've stored in the service from the central photos experience in Windows Phone. This is another new feature available to apps.
Share integration. As with previous Windows Phone versions, these apps can integrate with the Share functionality so you can share information and photos using the connected social networking services.
In Windows Phone 8, social networking integration was inconsistent between services. And because this integration occurred from within the OS, it was never updated. So it lagged behind when the underlying services were updated.
In Windows Phone 8.1, the promise is two-fold. First, the integration should be consistent now between various services (like, say, Facebook and Twitter). And because the functionality is now coming from standalone apps and not the OS, they should theoretically be more up to date, and updatable as the underlying services are updated.
In testing Windows Phone 8.1, however, I was surprised to discover that both Facebook and Twitter were still available as account types in Email + Accounts settings. After all, if the standalone apps now offered such deep integration capabilities, why would they be offered in this way too? As it turns out, this comes with its own little inconsistency: If you try to configure a Facebook account in Email + Accounts, it shuttles you off to the app. Ah, nice. But if you try to configure a Twitter account in the same interface, it works as it did in Windows Phone 8 and previous: It prompts you to connect your Microsoft account to your Twitter account.
So I had questions.
But with the leaked release of the Twitter Beta app for Windows Phone 8.1, I can see where this is going: Twitter will work like Facebook does, and it will offer the same integrated experiences as does Facebook via an app, and not Windows Services as with previous Windows Phone versions. When you consider that Windows Phone 8.1 is not yet technically available to the public, the fact that the new Twitter is not yet ready is perfectly acceptable.
The bad news? While writing this article, Twitter and/or Microsoft have already removed the public download link for the Beta version of the app. Apparently, the initial release (at least to the public) was a mistake. If you look at the LinkedIn account type in Windows Phone 8.1, you can see that it, too, still ostensibly uses the old "connect with Microsoft account" approach. But I bet that changes soon too.
This new Social Extensibility Framework significantly improves how social networks can integrate with Windows Phone, because this integration comes from apps. Apps that can and will be updated regularly going forward. And this means that Windows Phone 8.1—and your experience using this system on your smart phone—will only get better going forward too. And that, folks, is a huge win.