Hotmail's days are numbered with Microsoft's announcement of an all-new cloud-based email service at Outlook.com Tuesday. It ties into SkyDrive, so you have 7GB of free space, and it can open attachments right inside new Web apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Its built-in Outlook chat connects to Facebook messages, and it will integrate Skype calls later this year.
Outlook.com mail was designed to snag Gmail users first and foremost, according to Dharmesh Mehta, Microsoft’s director for Windows Live product management.
Unlike Google's email service, Outlook.com doesn’t personalize its ads by looking at your email content. More generic Bing ads are displayed in the right-hand sidebar of the inbox, but not in a conversation view. When you’re viewing an email thread, the sidebar shows the sender's photo and recent Facebook and Twitter activity, which you can respond to right in line. It’s like Microsoft built in a simplified version of Rapportive.
Outlook’s address book connects to Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, LinkedIn and other services, so contact info will update automatically when friends change their profiles.
Outlook.com mail does some handy tricks with attachments. Attached photos appear in recipients’ inbox as nicely formatted Web-based previews instead of a deluge of large files. Click on them and they open in the browser. And email messages can show SkyDrive and Flickr album slideshows.
Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, which people constantly email back and forth, upload to SkyDrive and can be edited in the browser - just like Google Docs, but without the need to convert the files.
Outlook.com mail reduces clicks in small ways, displaying convenient delete and mark-as-read buttons alongside as you mouse over each message, so you can execute these actions instantly without having to click a check box first. It lets you choose your preferred keyboard shortcuts; if you’re not used to Outlook shortcuts, you can switch to Gmail or Yahoo! Mail shortcuts.
Outlook mail also has easy tools for cleaning up so-called “graymail,” the coupons and newsletters we’re constantly getting but may not always want. You can schedule regular cleanups of old robo-emails while keeping the latest one in your inbox.
So what will happen to Hotmail, Microsoft's long-lived webmail service? It will remain as it is for now, but not forever. “This is a preview,” Mehta says of Outlook.com mail. Microsoft will merge its two webmail services "at some point," but for now, it will run the two in tandem.
Go to Outlook.com to join the preview. You can upgrade your existing Windows Live or Hotmail account, or you can create a new Outlook.com user name.