This week Microsoft announced the end of their Hotmail email service, rebranding it as Outlook.com (for Hotmail users there is purportedly a button that you push to upgrade, though I couldn’t find it). A lot of writers have written about how this compares to Gmail, though I suspect that the immediate target is actually Yahoo (for reasons I describe below). Outlook.com is available in open beta now and can be used with your current Microsoft credentials.
One of the features that is really well done is the social integration. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are all represented (Although Twitter appears to be disconnected at the moment). The capability to message directly from the interface is very intuitive and well done. Upon import I did find some unnecessary redundancy of entries, which concerns me since there were unique identifiers that Outlook.com should have used to link accounts. But all in all it’s very user friendly and well-conceived.
Despite some room for improvement, the social integration of Outlook.com immediately ups the ante for Google and Yahoo.
Future Office integration
The differentiating feature of Outlook.com may be its integration with the Microsoft Office Suite. Outlook.com has Skype where Gmail has calls and hangouts, Microsoft has SkyDrive where Google has Drive, inevitably Gmail will catch up with social integration, but Google Docs and Apps are an inferior product to Microsoft Office. This may be the one fulcrum point that Microsoft can leverage in webmail that can trump Google. Of course, it’s a bit unclear how this would work but with the additional layer of Yammer Microsoft appears to have created a webmail product that may be (gasp) best in its class.
It also should be pointed out the users can switch to an @outlook.com email, although right now it appears migration to that email domain is not working.
Google may not be the immediate target
As much as people like to compare Outlook.com to Gmail, Microsoft has shown that it has no hesitation to grab market share away from it’s “partner,” Yahoo. In the past three years, Bing has managed to take 35% of Yahoo’s search audience without making a dent in Google’s share of market. This may be the way the webmail war plays out. One presumes that Gmail users are well-integrated into the Google ecosystem, but what tethers a Yahoo Mail user to Yahoo? The low-hanging fruit may lie there, and Outlook.com may be the product that convinces Yahoo users to abandon that sinking ship.
I want to hate it but I don’t
I hate Bing. I hate it because it returns bad results and because it takes my social data and completely ignores it. I want to hate Outlook.com with the same vitriol, but I don’t. I actually kind of like it. The user experience is good, the interface is good, the idea is great, the potential is great. Truth told I really like what Microsoft has done with Outlook.com.
I hope that Microsoft is sufficiently siloed that no one from Bing contributes to Outlook.com’s future incarnations. With a few improvements, it could be a pretty special product and give Google users something to think about.