Microsoft testing new Outlook.com Premium email service

Microsoft is testing a new Outlook.com Premium email service while it continues to roll out its updated free Outlook.com service.

Microsoft is piloting a new version of its Outlook.com email, known as Outlook.com Premium.

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Outlook.com Premium seems to be different from the current ad-free Outlook.com service that Microsoft currently sells for $19.95 per year. Ad-free Outlook.com, the successor to Hotmail Plus, removes graphical ads; no need to log in to keep an account active; and free technical support.

Microsoft isn't talking about when and whether the company plans to roll out Outlook.com Premium or how much (if anything) it will cost to subscribe.

But one of the features to which Outlook.com Premium testers have access is the ability to set up new custom domain accounts. Microsoft began winding down custom domain support in Outlook.com in 2014. While existing Outlook.com custom-domain holders were able to retain existing custom email addresses, Microsoft stopped accepting new registrations for the service and no longer allowed those with custom email addresses to add or remove addresses.

A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed that the company is piloting Outlook.com Premium and evaluating the return of a modified custom domain service.

"Outlook.com Premium is not an existing offering, it is an experiment that we are piloting. We're always investigating new features based on the wants and needs of our users, and we have nothing more to share at this time," the spokesperson told me after I asked about this Web page, brought to my attention by a reader.

On the custom domain front, the spokesperson said:

"We are evaluating interest in custom domains for Outlook.com. At this time, we are testing with a limited number of users in the United States and will evaluate the experience over time. The previous program required the user to manage the process of purchasing a domain. We are evaluating the appeal of custom domains but with Microsoft managing the processes of procuring the domain."

In other Outlook.com news this week, Microsoft removed the "preview" tag from its updated Outlook.com experience, but still has yet to roll out the updated service to many.

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Microsoft officials said in May 2015 that they'd be updating Outlook.com with new features that would make it look and feel more like "real" Outlook. The plan was to bring Outlook and Outlook.com closer together so that users feel like there are fewer differences between these two different email products that are both called "Outlook." The move was similar to what the company is doing in terms of bringing together Skype and Skype for Business (Lync), and OneDrive and OneDrive for Business.

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In August 2015, Microsoft expanded the very limited number of users who had received the new Outlook.com preview. As of Febraury 2016, Microsoft is continuing to roll out the updated service worldwide. Microsoft officials said this week that they are rolling out the new experience "to millions of users each week."

Brand-new Outlook.com users get the new version of Outlook.com upon sign up in North America and in the coming weeks in other parts of the world. Existing Outlook.com users: Microsoft still is saying we'll get the updated version of the service "soon." Existing Outlook.com users don't need to do anything; settings and data will be automatically transferred. Users' Outlook.com email addresses will remain the same.

I asked Microsoft if existing Outlook.com users can opt out or are able to get a heads-up before they are transferred. I believe the answer on both of these is no, but I still have yet to hear back.

As Microsoft officials said last May, the updated Outlook.com is "powered by Office 365," which means it will share some of the same platform-level components -- though not actually use Exchange on the back-end like Outlook does.

The new Outlook.com also will include not just features announced in May 2015, but also add-ins announced late last year, such as suggested contacts and automatic flight notifications. Add-ins for Uber, PayPal, Evernote, Wunderlist and other apps are also going to be part of the new experience, as announced last August.

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