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Outlook.com Mail: Microsoft gives Hotmail a Metro-styled remake

To say that 2012 has been a renaissance for Microsoft is an understatement. Between Windows 8 and RT, Windows Server 2012, Office 2013, the new SkyDrive, Microsoft account, and more, Microsoft is reinventing entire product lines and setting itself up nicely for the future. But many have been wondering about the fate of some of the former Windows Live products and services, and this week the software giant unveiled its next blockbuster update: Outlook.com, the webmail service that will replace Hotmail.

Yes, that’s right. Microsoft is replacing Hotmail.

What’s interesting about this move is that it’s a net positive. If you love Hotmail, if you use and rely on Hotmail every single day, as I do, you’re going to love Outlook.com. But if you weren’t a fan, either because the name had about the same tech cred as AOL, well, I’ve good news for you as well: Outlook.com is awesome. And either way, you’re going to want to take a look.

Outlook.com was developed under the codename NewMail, and you may have seen some leaked screenshots a while back. (My shots here still use the NewMail logo but that will have changed to Outlook by the time you read this.) It’s basically a web-based superset of the Mail app in Windows 8, and it includes everything good about that app—the simple Metro look and feel, example—but improves on all the bone-headed stuff that’s missing in that app, including its lack of drag and drop.

As part of the former suite of Windows Live online services, Outlook.com is also being accompanied by updates to some of those other services. So in this preview release, we see a major update to the Windows Live Contacts service, now simply called People (making it consistent with all of Microsoft’s other contacts management solutions going forward), and a new version of the SkyDrive web interface that will look shockingly familiar to anyone who’s used the Windows 8 SkyDrive app.

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Windows Live Calendar, which is becoming simply Calendar, has not been updated yet—Microsoft tells me that most people access the calendar through their phones or Windows applications, anyway—but it will be in the near future. There’s even a built-in web messaging feature—yes, it’s called Messaging, like the Windows 8 app—that will replace today’s Web Messenger.

I have covered the new People experience in Outlook.com People: Microsoft Reimagines Contacts and the new SkyDrive web interface in Outlook.com + SkyDrive: Microsoft Reimagines Cloud Storage. So check out those articles for more information about these other related services. I will examine Messaging as part of Outlook.com here.

And there’s a lot to examine.

It starts with the “why,” of course. In a surprisingly frank assessment, Microsoft general manager Brian Hall told me earlier this month that his company needed to make a change. “We’ve been doing Hotmail for 15 years, and it’s quite good,” he said. “But it’s not winning.”

Looking back, he said, the last major change to email happened when Google launched Gmail in 2004. And while Microsoft has absolutely updated Hotmail a lot to remain competitive, the tech landscape has changed in the intervening 8 years. “The diversity of what we do online has exploded,” Hall explained. “Social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, and Skype have changed the way we communicate. But even email has changed: Newsletters are now 50 percent of all mail, and 17 percent are social networking updates.”

Also, privacy matters a lot more now than it did in 2004. “Back then, ads could be annoying but they weren't disconcerting,” he added, alluding to perhaps the single biggest change to email that Google pioneered with Gmail. “Now they really are kind of scary.”

With all this as a backdrop, Microsoft looked at Hotmail and realized it had all the tools in place to create a first-class, web-based email service that could be at both home and work. But the Hotmail name hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. So it was time to make a change with the branding as well. The new name is Outlook.com, and when you visit the web version of the service it will simply say Outlook.

So what about that name, Outlook? As with the Surface brand, it was a name that Microsoft had been using for years and years, but with a different product. But the firm decided to reapply the name, use it elsewhere, and give new life both to the brand and to the service. (I can’t imagine anyone doesn’t know this, but to date, Outlook has been used as the name of Microsoft’s Office-based email and PIM application.)

“This is a new webmail service called Outlook,” Hall told me. “It’s an email service for individuals and for small businesses, and will use a fresh new domain, outlook.com.”

As with Surface—which Microsoft took from a previous touch-based table product and applied it to a coming line of Windows 8-based slate tablets—using the Outlook name in place of Hotmail is one of those things I’d never have come up with personally. But it’s obvious in retrospect, even desirable. It’s a great name for this service.

Outlook.com will be available in a preview version by the time you read this, and anyone can head to outlook.com to sign up for a new *@outlook.com email address. If you’re using Hotmail now (with a hotmail.com, live.com, or similar email address, you’ll be able to switch to Outlook.com and, if you want, keep your existing address. Since my own Hotmail address is my central personal account, and the Microsoft account at the heart of my Windows, Windows Phone, Office, and Xbox activities, I’ll continue using the old address with the new service.

(We’re still quite a ways from this, but yes, at some point in the future the current Hotmail interface will simply be retired. As with previous major Hotmail updates, users will for some time be able to choose between the classic Hotmail UI and the new Outlook.com experience. But eventually Hotmail will disappear.)

I’ve been using Outlook.com with my Hotmail account for a few weeks now, and the best way to explain the new webmail service is to note that it retains everything I love about Hotmail while offering a significantly nicer user experience. This is a truly excellent service.

Outlook.com: The mile-high view

To grok Outlook.com, you just have to look at it, and then to compare it with both its predecessor and with the Mail app client for Windows 8. Outlook.com is a modern take on email, with a flat, Metro-style user interface that provides a familiar but clean looking, columnar view of your email.

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Here’s the same email inbox viewed from the Mail app:

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So what’s different?

The basic layout is the same, with the same three columns—folders, messages, and reading pane. But Outlook.com features a fourth pane that displays social networking connections related to the people in the selected email (assuming such information is available; sometimes there are ads, but nothing invasive or context-sensitive). And Outlook.com is a web app, not a Metro app, so the toolbar of options is available on the top at all times and not hidden like a Metro app’s app bar. (I displayed the app bar in the shot above.) I happen to prefer this. It’s a better use of space and more efficient, I think. But Microsoft also dramatically simplified this toolbar, and the header of the site takes up a lot less space than did the previous version. (It’s smaller than Gmail’s header too. Just saying.)

Outlook.com isn’t an island of functionality either. With the Mail app, you could manually display the Messaging app side by side using Metro’s limited snap feature, but for the most part these apps stand alone. With Outlook.com, you can be connected to your favorite instant messaging networks—Windows Live Messenger and Facebook—and not need to be running another app or displaying another web page. It’s always on if you want it, and uses Metro-like notifications, which is fun. But you can also display a separate Messaging pane if you’d like too.

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But back to email. Everything that was great about Hotmail is in there. That means all the excellent spam and gray mail tools—including Sweep, automated newsletter unsubscribe, and junk mail—are all in there. Active Views, too, which let you view photo slide shows, You Tube videos, and other content sent via email, right from within the mail experience.

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You also get the Office Web Apps—web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—that are built into SkyDrive. Plus that SkyDrive integration gives you the ability to share content that exceeds Hotmail’s 25 MB attachment limit. And while it’s not enabled in the preview, Microsoft will be integrating Skype into Outlook.com by the final release too. This will let you make Skype audio, video, or text chats from the web, without installing a native client application.

From a design perspective, the UI elements in Outlook.com are generally big enough to use with a multi-touch device, but they of course work great with mouse and keyboard too. (That’s how I’ve used it primarily.) In fact, Oulook.com is friendlier, if you will, on traditional PCs, as it supports all the keyboard shortcuts and—missing in the Mail app—the drag and drop functionality you have a right to expect.

Outlook.com also offers interesting integration with Windows 8. When you sign-in to your Microsoft account with Windows 8, you’re signed into Outlook.com’s email, calendar, people, and messaging services automatically (assuming you use Internet Explorer), which makes it seem like a real app.

Final thoughts

The new Outlook.com email service is a no-brainer that improves dramatically on Hotmail while retaining its predecessor’s best features. Wrapped in a gorgeous Metro shell, Outlook.com is both beautiful and efficient, and a better email client than either the Windows 8 Mail app or the previous Hotmail web interface. And it’s integration with various Microsoft solutions—not just the people, calendar, and messaging pieces, but also Office, SkyDrive, and Skype, really puts Outlook.com over the top. You need to check out this service immediately: It’s better than whatever email service you’re using now.