Back in June, there were leaks about an alleged new Microsoft mail client -- "Newmail" -- something LiveSide.net described as a Metro-style Hotmail."
On July 31, Microsoft took the wraps off a preview version of that new client, which it is formally christening "Outlook.com." (The screen shot above is an example of what the new Outlook.com interface looks like.)
Microsoft is billing Outlook.com as a new free mail service that pulls features from Hotmail and Exchange. It is designed for personal/consumer use; Microsoft continues to position Outlook as its business e-mail client. Outlook.com is integrated with Windows and Office, and can pull in Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and LinkedIn contacts. The new mail client has the Metro look and feel. And it is providing users with more granular control over which ads they see and where they see them.
In some countries, @Hotmail email addresses are not pariahs. But in others, they're considered as unhip as @aol addresses. While Microsoft is not currently requiring Hotmail users to move to Outlook.com, the longer-term plan is to convince them to move to Outlook.com. There's no word on when (or definitively if) Microsoft will pull the plug on Hotmail.com, but I'd guess there is a date on someone's calendar at Microsoft as to when this will happen.
Those who've been following the increasingly regular feature updates that the Hotmail team has added to the service will be familiar with Outlook.com's features. The ability to view previews of attached photos; to "sweep" unwanted messages in bulk; to weed out "gray" (junk) mail more easily; and to access Microsoft's Office Web Apps (the Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote) from inside mail are all part of Outlook.com. (I'm not really sure which unique Exchange features are part of Outlook.com. Anyone?)
Microsoft is providing new Outlook.com users with 7 GB of free cloud storage through SkyDrive. (If you already have a SkyDrive account, I don't believe you get an extra 7 GB added to your total available storage if you sign up for Outlook.com, however.) As it has been doing with Hotmail, Microsoft is trying to wean Outlook.com users from sending attachments. Instead, the focus is on saving files, photos and other content to the cloud, with "smart layouts" in email messages showing recipients what they can see via links and/or downloads.
On Windows devices, including Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets and PCs, users will have the option of choosing which mail client they want to use (when they click on the Mail app). One of the permitted choices will be Outlook.com. And on other mobile devices and phones -- not just Windows Phones, but any phone that supports Exchange ActiveSync -- Outlook.com will be a supported mail option, as well.
For those wondering about Skype integration, especially given this week's news regarding Google replacing Gmail video chat with Google+ Hangouts, Microsoft is dangling the promise of, at some point in the future, being able to launch Skype video calls from inside Outlook.com inboxes without having to use the Skype app. (It sounds like the ability to use Outlook.com plus video calling from the Web will be another option here.)
Microsoft is not commenting on when it expects Outlook.com will advance beyond the test stage. As of today, it is available in preview form. Those who already have @hotmail.com and/or @live.com email addresses that they want to move to @outlook.com can click "Upgrade to Outlook.com" in the options menu. Those who do not have existing Microsoft consumer mail accounts with those addresses can sign up for a new @outlook.com email address via www.outlook.com.
Update: As my ZDNet colleague Matthew Miller notes, there is a warning from Microsoft not to rename your existing @hotmail or @live emails to @outlook ones on Windows Phones. It's fine to create a new outlook.com address for your phone, but Microsoft is advising against renaming because current Xbox Live, Skydrive, Marketplace and other settings are tied to the old addresses.
Update No. 2: At the end of the day (EST) on July 31, the Outlook.com team tweeted that a million people had signed up for the Outlook.com preview. (This means, I'd assume, 1 million new names were registered, with individuals registering multiple names.)