Two years ago, Microsoft attempted to transform Hotmail, its ancient Web mail service, into a program fit for modern times. The company put a great deal of thought into redesigning the site from top to bottom, and I loved the result -- I thought the then-new Hotmail was as easy and pleasant to use as Google's Gmail, which I've long regarded as the best email system on the planet.
Hotmail even had some features that Google's venerable emailer lacked, like a preview pane to see your inbox and read messages on the same screen and a one-click filtering system called "Sweep." Hotmail's only problem was that it was chock full of animated graphical ads, which I found far more distracting than Gmail's innocuous text-only ads.
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"If Hotmail switches to text ads, I'd seriously consider ditching Gmail," I wrote.
I wish I could tell you that my rave review sparked renewed worldwide interest in Hotmail. It didn't. By virtue of its age (it was launched in 1996), Hotmail still has hundreds of millions of users around the world, but it's not growing nearly as fast as Gmail.
This isn't surprising. The problem with Hotmail isn't how it works, it's the service's digital standing. A hotmail.com email address long ago became a mark of naiveté, an address for grandmas and other schemers. Telling people to contact you at Hotmail was an invitation for ridicule -- the Internet equivalent of wearing a Kick Me sign.
That's why Microsoft is making a clean break with Hotmail. It recently launched a new Web email service that carries a new design, and -- Microsoft hopes -- a new grown-up, not-so-embarrassing brand image.
The new service does have an old name, but one that Microsoft believes elicits far better associations than Hotmail: It's called Outlook, matching Microsoft's widely used corporate desktop email and calendar program. But the new Outlook Web service looks nothing like Outlook on the desktop, and while Microsoft says the two work well together, you don't need to use the paid software to use the website.
Anyone can sign up for an outlook.com email address. If you've got a Hotmail address, nothing will change for you right now, but at some point in the future, Hotmail users will be moved to the new Outlook interface. (They will be able to keep their old Hotmail addresses, though.)
"We want to signal the right thing -- that this is fundamentally new," said Brian Hall, who runs Microsoft's Web mail services. "If we'd called it Hotmail Version 2, does that signal that? No. Not to mention, Hotmail doesn't mean 'Mail from Microsoft.' Outlook does. So we thought, let's not maintain this schism between professional-quality stuff and stuff we give away online for free. We figured we've got one great brand that means 'Mail from Microsoft,' and that's Outlook."
It's debatable whether people will immediately take to the new name -- Outlook has its own checkered history of email annoyances. (My Slate colleagues use Outlook, and they're constantly complaining about the difficulty of accessing their email on the go; the IT people say the company will upgrade to the new Outlook Web mail service later this year.) But after using it for a week, I think the new Outlook online service can make a name for itself as a worthy rival to Gmail.
In fact, other than Gmail power users, most people will likely find Outlook easier to use -- and more enjoyable -- than Google's now aging email service.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Outlook is gorgeous -- it's the best-designed Web email service I've ever seen. Second, Microsoft has finally done away with graphical ads, and the text ads that remain are less intrusive than Gmail's.
Let's talk about looks. When Gmail launched in 2004, it had a simple, minimalist aesthetic, but it has grown increasingly cluttered and confusing. Like a lot of other users, I hated Google's latest redesign, which -- depending on the settings you choose -- either fills up the page with too much white space, leaving little room for your messages, or scrunches up your messages so closely that they become hard to read.
Gmail's biggest design problem is that it wastes the top few inches of your page. That area is devoted to marketing Google's other products (especially Google+); has a dedicated line for ads; and then, next to the search box, includes miles and miles of empty space. On small displays, all that waste is tragic. The top band takes up so much room that could otherwise be devoted to your mail, which means you've got to keep scrolling and scrolling to get stuff done.
The new Outlook is refreshingly frugal with your screen real estate. In describing it, Hall kept using the word "clean," and I think that's right -- Outlook looks like what you'd end up with if you started with Gmail and scrubbed it of all unnecessary elements.
It has a single bar on the top of the page for navigational buttons. The left rail has a search box and links to your mail folders. The right rail is devoted to advertising. The rest of the space is for your messages -- and you'll see a lot more messages than you do on Gmail.
Outlook's approach to advertising is also refreshing. As with Gmail, the ads here are small, text-based and never distracting. Outlook displays more of these ads on its front page than Gmail does (though since they're on the right rail, the space they take up isn't valuable) -- but when you click on an email to read it, Outlook is more deliberate about where it displays ads and where it doesn't. The system will show you "relevant" ads alongside newsletters and other mail from companies, but when you click on messages from real people -- your mom, your colleague, your boss -- Outlook will not display any advertising. (Outlook does seem to have a problem separating real people from companies; on some messages from strangers, the system did display ads).
Microsoft says the lack of ads on personal mail is a big privacy advantage over Gmail, which uses algorithms to scan your mail and shows you related ads alongside every message.
In most ways, whether you prefer Outlook or Gmail will come down to a matter of taste and what you're comfortable with. Objectively, they're both very good emailers. If you appreciate good design and you're weary of Google's privacy policies, the new Outlook might be just up your alley.