Microsoft has spent the summer showing off major changes the way it does things. An all-new Windows 8 ... its first computing devices, the Microsoft Surface tablet ... as well as Xbox Smartglass, Office 2013, and the new Windows Phone 8.
And the engineers in Redmond aren't done yet. Today Microsoft is announcing its new take on webmail with Outlook.com. And it too is a break with the past.
No, Outlook isn't just a new version of the email program that runs on your computer (though that program is still around and still called Outlook). The new Outlook is an entirely new webmail service, complete with @outlook.com domains. It doesn't replace Microsoft's Hotmail or Windows Live email service, but it is very easy to move your @hotmail.com or @live.com email address over to the new service.
"We wanted to do something bold and different with webmail," Chris Jones, the head of Microsoft's Windows Live group, told me during a demo of the product a couple of weeks ago. "We thought it was time for a change."
And change is clear from the second you visit Outlook.com. Microsoft didn't just want to redesign Hotmail, Jones said. Instead it wanted to design a completely new email system.
If you've used Windows 8 or Windows Phone, the Outlook.com look and feel will be familiar to you. It's based on Microsoft's clean Metro design: lots of white space, clean lines, and well-organized menus. Outlook is designed around the inbox; advertising has been pushed off to the right and the lack of clutter makes it easy to focus on your new messages. Microsoft says that in its basic Inbox view (without the right or bottom message pane enabled) it shows more messages in your inbox than competing services, like Google's Gmail.
Gmail, by the way, is exactly the service Microsoft is looking to take on here. And as a heavy Gmail user I will admit I have much preferred the clean and distraction-free Outlook interface over Google's.
Managing email has also been streamlined. You can view your messages in a two-pane view, with the message on the right and the list of messages in your Inbox on the left. To the far left is a panel with your main folders. (It's very easy to drag and drop messages into folders and rename then by left-clicking.) Microsoft also lets you change the color across the top menu bar in the settings.
Features: Social Integration, QuickView, Sweep
But an eye-pleasing design isn't the only thing Microsoft hopes will lure people away from other services, like Gmail and Yahoo. The company says Outlook is a more social form of email. While Gmail might only loop in with your Google Talk or Google Plus account, Outlook can bring in your Facebook and Twitter streams. You can log in to your accounts via the People menu and when you receive an email from someone with whom you're linked, their statuses will show up on the right side of the email message. You can alternatively log in with your Facebook chat and chat right in the interface. Skype will also be integrated in the final version.