Microsoft is rebooting its cloud-based email service.
Although hundreds of millions of people continue to rely on Hotmail for messages, Microsoft plans on replacing the 15-year-old service with Outlook.com, which it launched in preview mode July 31.
Evidently, Microsoft felt that a rebranding was necessary to better compete against Gmail, Google’s popular cloud-based email service, and Yahoo Mail, which also retains hundreds of millions of users despite its advanced age.
Signing into the preview of Outlook.com, the first thing one notices is the design, which takes its minimalist cues from other recent Microsoft properties such as Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Microsoft claims that this layout offers 30 percent more messages visible at any given time. Outlook.com leverages Exchange ActiveSync, which allows for syncing of email, calendar and people between multiple devices.
Users will also notice a thin rail of ads on the right side of the interface. Along the top bar, a series of buttons allows users to categorize email, move it between folders, “sweep” a box, and mark senders as unsafe. A “Quick Views” tab on the left-hand bar allows users to take a speedy glance at documents, photos and shipping updates. In other words, there’s nothing here liable to change the world of cloud-based email as we know it; but for Microsoft (and any user with a clogged Hotmail box), this is a clean slate of sorts.
Outlook.com integrates data from the user’s Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts, similar to the “People” Hub already present on Windows Phone and Windows 8. Skype, now a Microsoft division, will also arrive on the platform at an unannounced future point.
In addition, the new platform utilizes some of the sorting technology that Microsoft first applied to a certain degree in Hotmail. “Outlook.com automatically sorts your messages from contacts, newsletters, shipping updates, and social updates,” read a July 31 blog post explaining many of the new features, “and with our Sweep features you can move, delete and set up powerful rules in a few, simple clicks so you can more quickly get to the email you really want.”
Hotmail users who want to upgrade to Outlook.com can click “Upgrade” in Hotmail’s menu options. In a bid to take a bite out of Google and Yahoo, Microsoft is also offering an easy way to forward email and import contacts from those services to Outlook.com.
Microsoft had tried to keep Hotmail viable throughout the years with periodic updates, including features designed to kill “graymail” and security tweaks. The service was just one arrow in Microsoft’s Google-battling quiver, which also included Bing and cloud-productivity software.
At a certain point, though, Microsoft evidently made the decision that the benefits of starting afresh outweighed that of a legacy brand. Now Outlook.com joins Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, the next version of Office and the Xbox, and other products in Microsoft’s latest push to appeal to a new generation of users.