(This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times Aug. 1, 2012.)
Back in the day, Hotmail was, well, pretty hot.
It was one of the first free Web-based email services available, instantly attracting a lot of users. It still has hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
But it’s time to start saying goodbye to Hotmail.
On Tuesday morning, Microsoft launched the preview version of Outlook.com, its new personal, free Web-based email service.
Eventually, Microsoft intends to migrate all Hotmail users to Outlook.com. But for the time being, Hotmail users can continue to use the same interface they’ve been using. Hotmail users who choose to do so will also be able to keep their Hotmail addresses even after moving over to Outlook.com.
Outlook.com combines both the familiar and the new.
Millions of people already use Outlook — Microsoft’s email, contacts, calendar and task-management system — primarily at work. It also comes bundled with several versions of Office, Microsoft’s productivity suite with a billion users worldwide.
It’s a name people are familiar with and already associate with email.
Branding both the business and personal email offerings from Microsoft with the same name “is very simplifying” for people, said Dharmesh Mehta, a senior director at Microsoft.
At the same time, Outlook.com is a spiffed-up-looking version of Outlook, featuring a clean new design and new features.
Outlook.com came about when Microsoft realized that “Web mail hasn’t kept up with what people are doing,” Mehta said.
Outlook engineers began thinking about “what does it mean to have a modern email,” he said.
Thus, Outlook.com includes features such as the option to connect to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks; the ability to open, edit and share Office documents anywhere via Office Web Apps; and options to easily connect in other ways, such as chat or a status update from a social network.
Still to come, Microsoft says, is the ability to make Skype video calls directly from your inbox.
Also, when emailing a person in your address book, there will be no ads featured, Microsoft promises.
There’s also the ability to filter newsletters, group deals and the like.
These features are designed not just to modernize Microsoft’s Web-based personal email service, but also to harmonize it with other changes the company is making.
Microsoft has been streamlining its brands lately, particularly for “Windows Live,” a name that had been used to refer to software for PCs, a suite of Web-based services and a user’s individual identification when he or she logged in to any Microsoft service. Now, the term “Microsoft account” is used to refer to a user’s individual logon identity.
Outlook.com is also designed to be particularly compatible with Windows 8, which will launch on Oct. 26.
Both are supposed to be equally friendly to touch and mouse-and-keyboard input.
It’s Microsoft’s break from the past, said Wes Miller, an analyst with the independent research firm Directions on Microsoft.
“Hotmail is something from the old millennium,” he said. “It was breakthrough in its time. And it’s still very popular. But even down to its name, it’s pretty dated. Old-timers like me remember when it was HoTMaiL — like HTML. The name itself conjures up a different era.”
The name “Hotmail” has also never tied in completely with the rest of Microsoft, which bought the service in 1997.
“Outlook, while not a name that everyone loves, is a name everyone associates with Microsoft,” Miller said, and Outlook.com ties in with other Microsoft offerings such as SkyDrive and Web Apps far better than Hotmail did.
It also appears that with Outlook.com, Microsoft is hoping that people will stay on the site longer, rather than logging in, checking email, then logging out.
“I think what Microsoft is trying to do with Outlook is make it stickier,” Miller said.
All of that is needed as Web email services, including Yahoo Mail and Gmail, have grown since Hotmail launched.
“In many ways, this meets or exceeds what you’d find in Gmail,” Miller said. “I think, in general, Microsoft understands their users a little better here.”