Microsoft, challenged by Google’s Gmail, is on a comeback trail in the Web-based email stakes. And this time, the reincarnation of Hotmail, which it acquired from Indian-born Sabeer Bhatia and other co-founders, seems to have found its mojo as Outlook.com.
With its crisp, clean look and easy user interface (UI), Microsoft has made Outlook very user-friendly, something that will have universal appeal — a welcome change. One million users promptly signed up for the new avatar that folds in Hotmail and Live.com, Microsoft's intermediary attempt to spruce up its offering. The arrival of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook is a valuable disruption for Microsoft, which it seems to have used well.
For instance, if you get a mail from a friend, when you click on his mail, you can also see what he is writing on Facebook, if he is on your Facebook friend list. Or you can catch his tweets if you follow him on Twitter. You can even post a “Like” signal on Facebook or “poke” a friend or reply to a tweet — all without leaving Outlook. A single screen, single window access to the virtual social world makes it all so easy.
Other features include a shortcut to sort or filter messages based on attachments (such as documents or pictures). The new Outlook also gives you the option to flag some messages to ensure that they stay on the top of your screen.
If you configure your Outlook.com email i-d on your phone, it can use the Active Sync feature to get contacts and calendars from the service. You can also get features such as making an additional aliases, configuring auto responses and categorising messages without physically moving them to folders. You can also set rules for sorting new messages, etc. In brief, you can now get on a free web mail account features of Microsoft’s popular Outlook mail software that was hitherto available only to corporate customers.
One very interesting feature is a code-based ‘sign-in’. Suppose you are in an Internet café with someone peeping over your shoulders. Since logging in with your password in such an environment can be unsafe, Outlook gives a new option. You can ask it to SMS you a one-time code, which you can use to login (much like banks do for some transactions on their websites).
That is not all, your old Contacts, Calendars and Sky Drive (Microsoft’s web-based data storage service) are all accessible from Outlook.com. The Contacts part has been upgraded and sports the same look and feel as the Outlook.com email, though the Calendar section is yet to be changed. However, we have been told this is going to happen soon. Similarly, when you access Sky Drive you get the old interface, but even this is being upgraded.
Here is the big bonus. You can create a Word File, Excel Sheet, or a PowerPoint presentation without having to install any software on your computer. The file can be saved in Sky Drive, the only catch being that you cannot email the file as a link as of now. You need to download the file and upload it again into the email — a glitch that Microsoft says it is fixing.
I am glad that I can retain my old Hotmail ID and get an additional Outlook.com ID. But I do have a few reservations — now that I can connect my Twitter and Facebook accounts to Outlook.com, I am worried about their 16-character limit on the password.
It would have been nice if Microsoft had synced the look and feel changes all round, rather than staggering modifications to Sky Drive and Calendar, but evidently the company has UX (user experience) as a major criterion, and that is a good thing. Finally they are doing things in a simple manner.
IF you like a simple user interface, and clean and nice looks, you will love Outlook.com. A short password is not such a bother for most of us, though they need to work very fast to get rest of the things in order.