NYT: Outlook.com, an E-Mail Service
“Coming soon, from the creator of the Macarena!”… “New, from the founders of Myspace!”… “He has the same agent as Steven Seagal!”
You don’t hear phrases like that much. Generally, once a hot property becomes a lame has-been, you don’t base your marketing on it.
But you might think that’s what Microsoft is doing with its new free Web-based e-mail service, Outlook.com. “From the company that brought you Hotmail!”
Hotmail is still the world’s largest e-mail service, with 324 million members. But Gmail, only six years old, already has 278 million, and Microsoft was getting nervous.
And there were other good reasons for Microsoft to start fresh: because times have changed and e-mail has changed; because e-mail isn’t the only thing you do online anymore (see also Facebook, Twitter); and, frankly, because lots of people still think of Hotmail as, you know, Hotmail.
That is, Hotmail still suffers from its early image as a cesspool of spam, fake addresses and blinking ads. Even today, a Hotmail address still says “unsophisticated loser” in some circles.
Outlook.com won’t have that problem. It’s clean, white and attractive, even on a cellphone. (It matches the look of the Mail program in the coming Windows 8 and the Outlook program in the coming Office 13.) Somebody put thought into the placement and typography of every element – and tried to get as far away from the Times Square clutter of Hotmail as possible.
There are ads. They appear in a column at the right side of the screen, both in your In-box and when reading messages from people who aren’t in your address book. But they’re plain text. They don’t blink, they’re not different colors and they’re not pictures. (In this early preview edition of Outlook.com, the ads are all from Microsoft’s own Bing Shopping service.)
Outlook.com represents a rethink of what the basic features should be in an e-mail program. It acknowledges, for example, that a huge proportion of e-mail these days is auto-generated: spam, newsletters, social networking updates.
So Outlook.com has buttons that, with one click, sweep all e-mail from a particular sender into the trash (a feature inherited from Hotmail). It also has a one-click Unsubscribe button that removes you from the mailing lists of legitimate companies, much as Google does. It can even auto-delete all but the most recent message from a company – perfect for daily deals like Groupon.
Outlook.com uses other smarts to categorize your messages. It has auto-detectors that look for messages from social media networks, messages containing photos, messages with package-tracking details, and so on.
Actually, those tracking messages are particularly awesome. Outlook.com inserts, at the top of such a message, the actual location of your package in big type, so you don’t have to trundle off to a Web site to look it up.
Photos and file attachments also appear at the top of the message that contains them, big and bold. In fact, if it’s an Office document (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), you can open the file right there in the message, even if you don’t own Office. The file opens in Microsoft’s online version of those apps. You can read, edit and collaborate, as long as you’re online. (Alas, you can’t open PDF files without downloading them first.)
Nor is that the only attachment magic. On Outlook.com, you no longer have to be terrified of the usual e-mail file-size limits. You can send photos, videos or any other files as large as 300 megabytes each – yes, by e-mail – and your recipient will get them just fine. That’s because Outlook ties into Microsoft’s free SkyDrive service, which offers 7 gigabytes of free online space. Suddenly, Gmail’s once-amazing 25-megabyte attachment limit looks so 2006.
Outlook plays well with other networks too. When you open a message from someone you know, the ad panel becomes a message panel; you can shoot a note to a Facebook friend without leaving your e-mail window. You can also see someone’s latest Facebook or Twitter update right in that pane.
Now, as great as all that sounds, Outlook.com service just went live as a public preview. It works fine already – better than fine – but Microsoft still has plenty of work to do. (The company isn’t saying when it will be finished.)
Much of the service is rewritten from scratch, but there’s still plenty of Hotmail in there; the word Hotmail still shows up on various screens. Outlook will eventually incorporate Skype and the Windows Live calendar, but that integration isn’t here yet.
The only crazy-making feature is Microsoft’s hair-trigger virus paranoia. After its traumatic Hotmail experience, Microsoft now acts like a New Yorker who, once mugged, installs six more door locks and carries pepper spray. A huge number of messages bear a banner: “This content has been blocked for your safety.”
You can click to unblock, but you get no information about what Microsoft is hiding or why. So what happens? You just unblock everything, rendering the entire blockade worthless.
Incidentally, Microsoft admits that it’s going after Gmail members with Outlook.com. Its sales pitch has three big pillars. First: unlimited mail storage. Not seven gigabytes or whatever – unlimited.
Second, the design is far less cluttered than Gmail.
Third, no ads based on e-mail content. On Gmail, next to a message to you about a Disney World trip, you might see ads for Orlando hotels. No human reads the messages, but even a software algorithm analyzing your mail is enough to give some people the willies.
They won’t have that discomfort with Outlook.com. Microsoft says that the ads are never based on your messages’ contents. In fact, Microsoft lets you tailor the ads to your interests. The initial Ad Settings screen is still crude, but already you can specify categories that you are and are not interested in: yes to home electronics, no to adult diapers. It should be hard for either the advertisers or the public to argue with that basic premise: as long as you’re earning this free service by seeing ads, at least they’re ads you’ll find interesting.
Microsoft also hopes to attract Gmail refugees by offering them a one-click setting that adopts Gmail’s keyboard shortcuts – and a simple setup process for bringing your Gmail world (or any other existing e-mail account) to Outlook.com. You can even keep your Gmail address, and use Outlook.com for sending and receiving the mail itself. That way, you gain the advantages of its categorizing smarts, Facebook integration and other perks.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine Gmail fans switching in droves, at least at the outset. Gmail is firmly tied into Google’s other services, and it’s far more mature. Hundreds of add-ons and checkboxes let you tailor Gmail to within an inch of its life.
(Just one example: Gmail can do that “I’m the front end for any e-mail account” thing, too, but for both common kinds of e-mail systems: POP and IMAP. Outlook can’t handle IMAP accounts.)
But Gmail fans, and everyone else, should have a look. Outlook.com is a product of the New Microsoft – the company that doesn’t get enough credit for the clean, crisp, original software design of its latest software for phones and PCs. An Outlook.com account makes a fantastic second e-mail account; it’s far superior to Hotmail, Yahoo and, in some ways, Gmail; and it’s free.
If you think you might ever be interested, the time to check it out is now. Because the service is so new, you can snag almost any e-mail name. Instead of settling for CaseyNYC2938478521, you can be CaseyNYC.
You cannot, however, be pogue. I got that one already.