Microsoft unveils Windows 8-inspired "Outlook.com" freemail service

Outlook 2013 logoMicrosoft today announced beta availability of a new free e-mail service that it's calling Outlook.com. The company is positioning it as a fresh, clean mail interface that will be touch-friendly, respectful of your privacy, and accessible from any device.

Formerly known only as "NewMail," Outlook.com takes Hotmail's functionality—including ActiveSync support for push mail and mobile device sync, Sweep for easy management of mailing lists and other semi-junk, integration with SkyDrive and the Office Web Apps—and wraps it up in a new interface. The design takes its cues from the Windows 8 Mail app and Outlook 2013.

Even with the new look, Outlook.com will be familiar to anyone who's used a Web mail client before. The basic layout is the same as Hotmail uses: folders on the left, messages in the middle, and advertisements on the right.

It's that third advertising panel that has arguably seen the biggest set of functional changes. Not only is the way it's used for advertising smart, it's also used for some non-advertising features too.

Microsoft has long maintained that its approach to advertising in Hotmail is superior to Gmail's, because Hotmail's advertisements don't use the contents of private mail to improve targeting (Gmail's do). With Outlook.com, Microsoft goes a step further. If you open up a mail from a real person (rather than a mailshot or similar from a corporation) then instead of showing you advertisements, the right-hand pane will show you information about that person, such as their most recent Twitter or Facebook update, their picture, and so on.

Outlook.com

When determining personhood, the system considers such things as whether the person is listed in your contacts, and whether they can be found on Facebook or Twitter. The determination is heuristic and will be tuned over time.

When an advertisement is shown, it'll appear as simple text in a box. Mouse over the text and they can show images or other richer content.

The advertising pane can also be completely replaced by an instant messaging pane. Chatting with both Windows Messenger and Facebook contacts is supported today, and in the coming months, Microsoft will extend this to integrate Skype video chat.

Outlook.com и Skype

Microsoft is giving a similar visual revamp to its other online services, including calendar, contacts (now renamed "People"), and SkyDrive. These changes will be rolling out in coming weeks or months, with only People available immediately. The People service shares the same Facebook and Twitter integration to show your contacts from a range of services, and it too is likely to gain Skype integration down the line.

Outlook.com. Pic. 2

Despite the new name, the Outlook.com service is very much a successor to Hotmail. Existing Hotmail users can switch to Outlook.com from their settings menu (and revert back if they don't like what they see), and once the service is stable and out of beta, Microsoft will begin migrating Hotmail users en masse. The name change is an attempt to move past the somewhat tarnished image that Hotmail has gained over the years.

Under the hood, Outlook.com doesn't change a lot. Inbox size is still more or less "unlimited," large attachments (up to 300MB) are sent via SkyDrive, there's still no support for IMAP clients, and the Web front-end offers no offline access.

Overall, the new interface is an improvement on what Hotmail previously had to offer, and the greater messaging and social networking integration is a sensible addition (that is set to get even better with Skype integration). The consistent branding may also provide a boost for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone, as users become more accustomed to the look and feel.

But in a world where device-based access is becoming increasingly important—Microsoft says that about 50 percent of current Hotmail users use the service through a smartphone or similar—the ability to win users with a better Web user interface seems limited.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: e-mail, Microsoft

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