So long, Hotmail. It was nice to know you.
Microsoft unveiled a major update to its consumer mail platform today, with a new look, a slew of new features, and a new name that is surprisingly familiar.
The “modern email” service has been in super stealth mode for several months under the codename NewMail. With its formal launch as an open-to-the-public preview, the service gets a new name: Outlook.com. I’ve been using the NewMail beta for a week now and can share some first impressions here.
Outlook, of course, is the serious, business-focused mail client included with Office. Microsoft used the brand with Outlook Express, its lightweight email client in Windows XP, but dumped the name with the launch of Windows Vista in 2006.
Restoring the Outlook name to Microsoft’s consumer email service accomplishes two goals. First, it dumps the Hotmail brand, which is tarnished beyond redemption, especially among technically sophisticated users who have embraced Google’s Gmail as the default standard for webmail. More importantly, it replaces the Hotmail domain with a fresh top-level domain that’s serious enough for business use.
(If you have an existing Hotmail.com or Live.com address, you can continue to use it with the new Outlook interface. But new addresses in the Outlook.com domain are up for grabs. if you have a common name, I recommend that you get yourself over to Outlook.com now to claim your preferred email address while it’s still available.)
The Outlook.com preview will run alongside Hotmail for now, but when the preview ends, this will be the replacement for all Hotmail and Live Mail users.
With Outlook.com, Microsoft is taking dead aim at Gmail, positioning Google’s flagship service as the old and tired player that is ready for retirement. Gmail, they point out, is eight years old, and its interface and feature set aren’t exactly modern. It doesn’t play well with any social media except its own, it handles attachments in a stodgy and traditional way, and it’s not particularly elegant when it comes to managing the deluge of email we all have to deal with every day.
So what’s new about NewMail—sorry, Outlook.com? And why would anyone consider switching from Gmail?
The most obvious change in the web interface, of course, is the overall design, which gets the full Metro treatment.
That three-pane layout follows the familiar Outlook standard, but the typography is definitely new. It’s clean and crisp with no wasted ornamentation or clutter. It should come as no surprise that the default organization is optimized for use on touch-enabled devices.
A pane on the right shows different content, depending on the context. If you're communicating with a friend of colleague who's in your address book or connected via a social-media service, you'll see updates about that person on the right side, with the option to chat with them (via Messenger or Facebook chat) in that pane. In a demo, Microsoft showed off Skype integration and said it will be coming later in the preview.
If you've selected no message, the right pane might show ads, which appear in Metro style boxes with text--an image preview appears if you hover over the ad. As part of its positioning against Google, Microsoft has taken pains to note that your messages aren't scanned to provide context-sensitive ads, as they are with Gmail.
This is a pure HTML interface, which means the functionality is consistent across different browsers and on alternative platforms. I tested NewMail on a Mac using Safari and Chrome and in both Firefox and Chrome on several Windows PCs. Everything worked as expected. I also tested the web-based interface in mobile Safari on an iPad, where it also displayed perfectly (after switching from the default mobile layout).
On mobile devices, you’ll be able to use native apps. An app for iOS devices should be available immediately. Microsoft promises an Android app “soon” that will enable Exchange ActiveSync support for older Android versions.
A few pieces of the web-based UI are worth calling out separately. You'll find screenshots and details on the next page.