Microsoft's New Outlook.com Takes Aim At Gmail
In the span of two days, Microsoft and Google separately announced beefy social-networking-style upgrades to their respective free, Web-based email platforms, adding integration with video-calling services, collaboration tools, and social networks. In terms of the scope of the new capabilities, Microsoft wins this round with a refreshingly Web-savvy remake of Hotmail.com dubbed Outlook.com.
Specifically, the newly unveiled Outlook.com service aims to reduce email clutter with a fresh GUI while giving users a one-stop shop for not only sending and receiving email but also engaging with peers via outside services including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Add to that integration with Microsoft's Office Web Apps, SkyDrive, and Skype in the near future, and you have a robust, free email client that also gives business users a taste of what's coming in Outlook 2013.
Google, meanwhile, has brought Google+'s popular Hangout video-chat tool to Gmail, along with new features enabling users to share screens, collaborate on documents, and view YouTube videos together. These deeper ties among Gmail, Google+, and Google Apps mark a big step in the company's overall ambition of providing a more integrated, personalized Google experience.
With Outlook.com, Microsoft says it seeks to address the problems plaguing today's email systems, including reducing the excessive clutter of personal messages, business messages, social updates, newsletters, and spam. That revamp starts with a new GUI reminiscent of Gmail's clean interface, with abundant white space, handy dropdowns, and minimal text.
Microsoft has also injected deep integration with third-party social networks and mail services, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. Not only can you easily import contacts, you can view your contacts' Facebook posts, photos, and tweets from Outlook.com, letting you stay abreast of communications with peers without having to jump from site to site. Users can even post to Facebook or LinkedIn directly from Outlook.com.
Additionally, "Outlook.com is capable of automatically sorting messages from contacts, newsletters, shipping updates, and social updates," wrote Chris Jones on the Outlook blog.
Back to the cleaner GUI, Outlook.com gives users a drop-down menu for one-click access for jumping among Mail, People, Calendar, and SkyDrive. (Each app has its own Metro-esque tile.) What's more, Outlook.com links seamlessly to the free Office Web Apps, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, with which users can view and edit attachments from their inbox.
Jones also highlighted the privacy features in Outlook.com, possibly as a swipe at Google, which is notorious for scanning emails for keywords to serve up relevant ads: "Email is private and confidential, and most folks we've talked to want to keep it that way. So we keep your personal email personal. We don't scan your email content or attachments and sell this information to advertisers or any other company, and we don't show ads in personal conversations."
If any of the aforementioned features sound familiar, it might be because you've read up on Outlook 2013, which Microsoft unveiled in Preview mode earlier this month. Like Outlook.com, Outlook 2013 offers Exchange ActiveSync support, which brings push-based email, appointments, and contacts via supporting email servers and services; the new approach to displaying and managing messages; social connectors to LinkedIn, Facebook, et al; integration with Calendar, SkyDrive, and Microsoft Office Web Apps; and portability among desktop and mobile clients.
Hotmail users, by the way, can upgrade to the Outlook.com preview by clicking Upgrade in the options menu of Hotmail; email addresses, passwords, contacts, old emails, and rules will remain unchanged. Users also can send and receive messages from their Hotmail.com, MSN.com, and Live.com addresses.
Google, meanwhile, has announced it's dumping Gmail video chat for Google+ Hangouts. "Unlike the old video chat, which was based on peer-to-peer technology, Hangouts utilize the power of Google's network to deliver higher reliability and enhanced quality. You'll be able to chat with all the same people you did before and, in fact, with Hangouts you'll now be able to reach them not only when they are using Gmail but also if they are on Google+ in the browser or on their Android or iOS devices," wrote Fred Brewin, product manager at Google.
To Google's credit, it's not forcing Gmail users to become Google+ users in order to take advantage of Hangouts, which is capable of supporting video chat among as many as 10 users at once. However, users with Google+ accounts have access to additional features, including screen sharing, collaboration on Google documents, and the ability to view YouTube videos together.
That level of integration demonstrates that Google is making good on its pledge to bring enterprise social-collaboration features to Google+, which the service has sorely lacked since it first launched.
It will be interesting to see which company's email gambit will bear the most fruit. Google's advantage lies in the fact that it's bringing its own social network to the party, whereas Microsoft has to rely on integrating with third-party offerings a la Facebook, LinkedIn, and so forth.
On the other hand, Facebook has more users than Google+, so Outlook.com's integration with Facebook -- the ability to see your friends' status messages, to post to their walls, and to chat with them via mail service -- may give it broader appeal.
Not to mention the addition of Google+ Hangouts to Gmail is pretty significant: The video-calling tool has earned praise and is increasing in popularity. Microsoft still has to demonstrate that Skype -- the company's potential answer to Hangouts -- can integrate effectively with Outlook.com (along with all of Microsoft's other products). But based on the early returns, longtime Hotmail and SkyDrive users have to like the direction Microsoft is headed.