Microsoft yesterday introduced Outlook.com, a brand new web-based e-mail service which it hopes will eventually replace its aging Hotmail platform. Initially available as a “preview,” Outlook.com will eventually be integrated with all the major social networks, Windows 8, Microsoft’s cloud services, Skype, and the upcoming Outlook 2013 desktop app.
In a blog post announcing Outlook.com, Microsoft’s Chris Jones points out that Hotmail was first introduced in 1996. Eight years later Google truly brought e-mail to the masses when it launched Gmail. But since that time very little has changed, except for the fact that our Inboxes have become so overwhelmed with unwanted newsletters and spam that checking e-mail has become a chore. As a result, millions of people have migrated to social networks and other forms of web-based communication for a more personalized and enjoyable experience.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “don’t I already have Outlook?” Yes, but what you have is a desktop application, not a webmail service. That’s why it’s best to think of this current version of Outlook.com as a complete overhaul of Hotmail, rather than impacting the Outlook app that you currently use for work or other e-mail communication.
Of course, one of the drivers for a renewed focus on web-based e-mail is the explosion in the use of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets and the cloud services that keep those devices synced with our PCs and Macs. Oulook.com will also use those cloud services to integrate with social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Skype to bring our webmail alive with photos, videos, status updates and instant chat.
Now, if you think that including all these extras in your e-mail will make it even more crowded and confusing, then you are right. But Outlook.com comes with several powerful tools like the new Sweep feature, which will help you organize your Inbox so you can quickly get to the mail that matters and ignore or delete the rest. This is in addition to all the usual features that allow you to create your own folders and tailor your e-mail to your own preferences.
Given the integration with Skype and social networks, then there need to be strong privacy controls (remember the Google Buzz fiasco?) and here Microsoft goes out of its way to reassure potential users. You decide whether you want to connect Outlook.com to your various social networks and you’re in control of who gets to see what. Microsoft also offers assurances that Outlook.com won’t scan e-mail or attachments to build a better profile of you for advertising purposes.
(Speaking of ads, the preview version of Outlook.com carries a relatively discrete panel of box-style ads on the right-hand side of each page, which appear to be randomly fed from the Bing shopping channel.)
If you are interested in using Outlook.com or just protecting an e-mail address in case of future use, then visit Outlook.com to sign-up. Existing Hotmail users can upgrade to the Outlook.com preview by clicking “Upgrade” on the options menu of Hotmail. Your e-mail address, contacts and old e-mail will remain the same and you can still use the e-mail and messaging platforms at hotmail.com, msn.com and live.com. Once you are using Outlook.com, you can set up the e-mail address on your phone or tablet in the normal way.