July 31, 2012 — -- 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.
Other features have to do with email organization. The QuickView panel on the left rail is best described as a smart filtering system. Microsoft has a list of preset categories -- including, documents, photos, newsletters, bills, shipping updates -- which automatically put emails that fall into those categories into their respective QuickView filter. You can configure it so that those messages are automatically removed from your inbox and moved to those QuickView folders.
You know those all-annoying newsletters we all sign up for and only occasionally read? Microsoft has built a feature called Sweep to help manage those and other non-personal messages. (Microsoft says newsletters, offers, daily deals, and social updates take up over 80 percent of a typical inbox.) Instead of having to delete every newsletter or Twitter follower notification email, you can select one and then hit the Sweep button. Outlook will ask you if you want to move all messages from that user to the trash. You can also set up a rule to have them moved in the future or to show only the most current message from that user. It's all very, very handy and worked well when I wanted to clean out my Twitter follower emails.
But the biggest differentiator could be advertising integration. You won't find ads crammed into every little crevice on this service.
"We don't think personal conversations should be advertised against," Jones said. While Gmail will show you ads based on your personal messages, Microsoft is taking a stance against the practice and emphasizing its privacy settings. While Outlook will show you ads on the right side of your inbox, it won't show ads on a specific email message.
Microsoft is releasing a preview version of Outlook.com today. And even better it is providing unlimited storage for all -- no need to worry about attachment sizes, etc. All users will be able to sign up for a brand new @outlook email handle or bring in their other email accounts, including Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. and use Outlook as an all-in-one email service. (You can receive messages from those services in Outlook and send messages from that address.) Microsoft seems to be aware that many are tied to their email addresses at this point and is making it easy to switch between accounts.
"Similar to how you can keep your phone number -- but change to a better service -- we want to make it easy for people to enjoy all of the benefits of Outlook.com without having to change their email address if they don't want to," Jones said. And there you have it: even more proof of Microsoft's summer mission to break from the past.