In July 2010, Microsoft released a long anticipated plugin for the Outlook Social Connector (OSC), which allows interaction between Outlook and Facebook. I examined the OSC with the MySpace provider in a previous article, “MySpace for Outlook,” InstantDoc ID 125323. In another article, “FBLook Brings Facebook into Outlook,” InstantDoc ID 103639, I summarized a third-party utility, FBLook, that incorporates Facebook into the Outlook experience.

The OSC is part of Outlook 2010, but is a downloadable add-on for Outlook 2003 and 2007. For download information, click here. July 2010 also saw the first update for the OSC as outlined in the Microsoft article "Description of the Outlook Social Connector update: July 13, 2010." This update is required for the Facebook provider; however, the Facebook provider installation will also download and install the OSC update if it has not been done already.

The OSC includes an API for developing providers to integrate social media sites to Outlook. The four main providers available for the OSC are now MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Windows Live. You can download the Microsoft Outlook Social Connector Provider for Facebook here. There are three separate downloads: Office 2003/2007, 32-bit Office 2010, and 64-bit Office 2010. The installation is simple with no optional settings. The Facebook Provider install doesn’t check to see if Outlook is running during installation. If it is, you will have to restart Outlook to use the new provider. The Facebook provider is not listed in the Add-In list within Outlook, but you can confirm that it is installed from the Programs (or Add/Remove Programs) applet in Control Panel and find the associated .dll file at %programfiles%\Microsoft Office\Office14\FACEBOOKPROVIDER.DLL.  The Facebook provider  runs within the Outlook.exe process.

After restarting Outlook, a pop-up window should prompt you to configure the new OSC provider. This prompt did not always appear in my testing on Windows 7 workstations; however, the configuration window is easy to access. In the Outlook main UI, select the View tab, then People Pane in the People Pane section of the ribbon. This window also opens if you select the green “+ Add” button in the People Pane when a message is selected. Or, if providers have already been configured, a slide-out menu will list them. You’ll need to click the last option, on another social network, to open the Social Network Accounts window. The Social Network Accounts window will list the OSC providers that are installed and available for Outlook. Figure 1 shows that the Facebook and LinkedIn providers are installed and that the LinkedIn provider is already configured. After selecting the check box beside the Facebook provider, you will be prompted to input the Facebook login credentials that you want Outlook to connect to.

Essentially, you are giving Outlook permission to authenticate to these social networks on your behalf and pull content into Outlook. When you select an email message or contact, Outlook connects to enabled OSC providers to retrieve information exposed by their API with your logon credentials to Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The Facebook provider does not empower Outlook as a full-featured Facebook client. It does bring more contact-specific information to your fingertips. There is no way to view a summary of updates from all your Facebook friends in one timeline, but you can see the updates from a specific friend in the People Pane when an email addressed to or from that friend is highlighted or that friend is selected from your contacts. Figure 2 shows an email with the People Pane reflecting some Facebook activity for that contact. Figure 3 shows the People Pane content when a Contact is selected. Clicking a Facebook entry in the People Pane will launch your default browser to the related Facebook page. Process Monitor shows Outlook.exe making TCP connections to api-11-01-snc2.facebook.com to retrieve update information. Remote data it also retrieved on regular intervals, not just on demand. Contact data is cached in memory for quicker access.

Facebook does provide a mechanism for updating your status and uploading images and video by sending an e-mail to a unique address. However, even with the Facebook Provider and the OSC, you can’t perform any Facebook configuration, comment , or “Like” objects, or generate Facebook events. The Facebook provider presents more complete communication profile for friends and contacts you communicate with through email by supplementing the information available to you.

Like almost all Outlook features, the OSC and specific providers, such as the Facebook provider, can be locked down on a network using GPO. I’ll look at managing the OSC and providers with GPO in a future article.