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Takeaway: Microsoft’s Gmail competitor has finally arrived. You might be surprised to learn that it brings some useful innovations to webmail. Here are the big four.
Microsoft now has a big-time Gmail competitor. Before you chuckle and say “that only took eight years,” keep in mind that Gmail is largely the same product that Google launched in 2004 — with some nice incremental tweaks to improve the user interface.
Microsoft wants to inject some innovation into webmail again — and it looks like they may have pulled it off. On Tuesday, the company unveiled Outlook.com, which is both its successor to Hotmail as well as its enhanced webmail for individual business professionals. It draws on Hotmail, Microsoft Exchange, and the Metro UI from Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8.
Based on my look at the working preview of Outlook.com that Microsoft has already released into the wild as well as an interview with one of Microsoft’s product leads on Outlook.com, I think there are four reasons why some users — especially professionals — will be legitimately tempted to make the switch from Gmail.
1. Automatic folders
The best new innovation in Outlook.com is what I like to call its “automatic folders” feature. The system attempts to smartly sort some of your mail for you by automatically creating virtual folders for common stuff like email newsletters, Facebook and Twitter alerts, and other repetitive messages that can end up burying more important emails from human beings you actually need to correspond with. Obviously, since this is run by an algorithm, there will certainly be some false positives and negatives and you might have to tweak it, but I like the low-touch nature of this feature. Microsoft has also tried to streamline the process of setting up your own inbox rules as well in Outlook.com.
In his blog post about the new service, Microsoft’s Chris Jones summed up the feature. “Outlook.com automatically sorts your messages from contacts, newsletters, shipping updates, and social updates,” wrote Jones, “and with our Sweep features you can move, delete and set up powerful rules in a few, simple clicks so you can more quickly get to the email you really want.”
Another mail management feature that I like in Outlook.com is that you can hover over a message and get a set of actions to delete the message or flag it as important or sort it to a folder — and you can even customize the functions you want to see on the hover-over.
2. Mobile experience
The biggest benefit that Microsoft has in designing a new webmail service in 2012 is that it can optimize it for today’s intensely-mobile world.
“The way people do mail on their mobile phone tends to be a little different,” said Brian Hall, General Manager of Windows Live and Internet Explorer. “They don’t do as much mail management.”
With that in mind, Microsoft used the automatic folder feature as its way of helping organize and prioritize users’ inboxes in a way that can work in virtually any type of desktop or mobile email client.
“Most people on a phone or tablet use the native mail client,” said Hall. “In those instances you want to make sure you work with any inbox. It’s a different approach than Priority Inbox from Google because they have to go create clients for mobile or else it breaks Priority Inbox.”
Hall also stressed that Microsoft is focused on delivering an excellent mobile web experience. In fact, the company is so focused on the native client and mobile web experience of Outlook.com that it doesn’t currently have plans to build an app for Microsoft’s own Windows Phone 7. ”It works beautifully with the native client,” said Hall.
On the other hand, he said they are working on an Android app, because “Android devices are less likely to have an Exchange ActiveSync client.”
3. Privacy protection
One of the creepiest parts of Gmail has always been the fact that it does text-mining on your emails and uses that information to surface targeted ads. That’s the price you pay for unlimited storage and a free service. For example, if you’re emailing back-and-forth with a family member about a trip to go hiking, Gmail will simultaneously surface text ads for things like Rocky Mountain vacations, hiking boots, and protein bars. While these ads are generally unobtrusive and occasionally even useful, it still freaks out some people to realize that Google is essentially “reading their mail.” This is especially true for business professionals and others who use email to transmit potentially valuable or sensitive information.
Capitalizing on this uneasiness, Microsoft is promising that Outlook.com will not do text-mining on your inbox, while still offering its service for free and with “virtually unlimited storage.”
“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,” Jones stated.
That doesn’t mean Outlook.com won’t have ads. There are right-column ads on the main inbox screen, but there aren’t ads on individual messages. Also, I’m sure these ads are going to be targeted based on what Microsoft knows about you in general, just not on the content of your individual messages.
4. Social integration
One of my favorite plug-ins for Gmail is Rapportive, which fills the right column in Gmail with contact information about the person you’re emailing. It draws that information from LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook (once you’ve logged in to those services) and will even show you the LinkedIn job title and latest status updates from the contact you’re emailing.
Microsoft has taken this kind of functionality and built it directly into Outlook.com, filling the right column of its message screen with this same kind of social contact data, but displaying it in a little bit simpler, cleaner way that follows the Metro UI style. Outlook.com doesn’t appear to show quite as much data as Rapportive.
However, Microsoft has taken social integration a step further. You can not only view people in your social networks from within Outlook.com and see their latest updates, but from the “People hub” you can also respond to status updates on Twitter and write on someone’s Facebook wall, all directly from Outlook.com. You can also do Facebook chat within Outlook.com. The instant messaging functionality itself is another strong feature of Outlook.com. The implementation is certainly better integrated and more usable than GTalk in Gmail.
Hall said Microsoft was focused on several key priorities in Outlook.com: ”Clean UI, design for tablets and all devices, connected with the services you actually use (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn), works great with [Microsoft] Office and SkyDrive, and actually prioritizes your privacy.”
Before I took a look at Outlook.com, I couldn’t imagine that there was much Microsoft could do to innovate in webmail, and I expected it to feel like a desperate late attempt to make Hotmail relevant by copying Gmail. While Outlook.com is definitely aimed squarely at Gmail, I was surprised at how fresh it feels. There’s some really useful innovation in there, and I think it’s really smart for Microsoft to go after Google on privacy. It means Outlook.com won’t be nearly as powerful of a money-maker as Gmail, but it could build some needed goodwill from users.
I also like that Microsoft isn’t afraid to admit that this is aimed directly at stealing some of Gmail’s thunder. Hall said, ”If you’re a heavy Google Docs or a Google+ user, then Gmail is probably for you. Otherwise, if you use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Office, then Outlook [dot com] is better.”
Takeaway: Microsoft has launched the Windows 8 Release Preview and is shooting for RTM in two months. Here are some major obstacles in the path of the OS.
When Windows 7 launched, it was a huge success for Microsoft. Its biggest challenges were the lingering anger around Vista and the satisfaction with XP. Windows 8 is being launched into a totally different set of market conditions and with the ambitious goal of unifying all form factors onto one operating system. Here are 10 challenges Windows 8 will need to conquer to be a success.
1: The Metro UI
Make no mistake about it: An awful lot of people are pretty unhappy with Metro. From my use of Metro on a Windows 8 VM and a Windows Phone 7 device for more than a year, I can tell you that there is a night-and-day difference between Metro on a desktop and Metro on a touch screen. Not only is Metro really different from the traditional Windows UI, but even in the Consumer Preview, it feels like the mouse is a second-class citizen to touch. Unless Microsoft can get this right, a lot of first impressions of Metro will be bad.
2: PC OEMs — can they finally get tablets right?
Microsoft’s fate is closely tied to the ability of its partners to get things right. The problem is, Windows 8 is as much (if not more so) of an OS for mobile form factors with touch UIs (tablets, smartphones) as it is for desktops and laptops. And this is the exact market that PC OEMs have proven bad at penetrating for around 10 years now. Sure, there have been some successes (like the iPaq line of PDAs). But there have been many more instances where the PC OEMs just could not figure out how to give customers what they wanted.
3: iPad, iPhones, and Android
Windows 8 on tablets is going head-to-head with the well-established iPad. In fact, the iPad is so dominant in tablets Android can’t get much traction at all, despite its success in phones. All the same, Microsoft is trying to push Windows 8 tablets. On the phone front, WP7 has been facing a huge uphill battle against iPhone and Android, despite much critical acclaim and a vocal and enthusiastic user base. Windows 8 on a phone will not be much different from WP7 to most users. If WP7 has been having it tough, Windows 8 is not likely to do much better in phones. Windows 8 for mobile form factors feels like a solution in search of a problem for many users.
4: Distrust of cloud
Windows 8 leverages cloud technologies in a great many ways, and it makes the OS easy to use. It’s pretty slick to sign into a brand new Windows 8 install and have all your contacts there, Facebook integration, etc. At the same time, this integration will raise all sorts of red flags to corporate IT departments, which will want to either cripple the devices or take a wait-and-see approach to moving to Windows 8, looking for folks to show exactly what data goes where and how… and how to stop it.
5: No Active Directory support on ARM
Windows 8’s big market advantage should be that it can allow tablets and phones to work as a seamless part of Active Directory, but this is not supported on ARM architecture. While Microsoft is giving corporate IT admins ways of managing Windows 8 devices, IT departments tend to prefer consolidation, not proliferation of management tools. Microsoft is going to have to work hard to prove to IT departments that they do not need Active Directory integration for ARM devices.
6: Brand new app market
The only way — other than developers testing — to get Windows 8-native applications (Metro applications) is through the app store. The question is, “Will the app store launch with a good number of apps?” Microsoft really surprised me with how many apps WP7 launched with, and it has been even more aggressive about getting apps into the Windows 8 app market early. And anything it can do to allow an easy port of WP7 apps to Windows 8 will be a huge help, especially if it is “no work required,” since the WP7 app store is around the 100,000 app mark at the time of this writing.
7: Microsoft Office
Microsoft has been taking steps to bring Office to other platforms (notably iOS), and when it does, that will reduce Windows lock-in quite a bit. It is also working hard to expand its Web reach with Office. Add it up, and users’ biggest reason to need Windows goes away, unless they depend on plug-ins that won’t work on other platforms.
8: The economy
The economy still stinks. A large part of getting a new OS into the market depends on people buying PCs, and a lot of folks are choosing to do without a new computer because of the cost.
9: Longer refresh cycles
While computers keep getting faster, most applications are not getting more demanding. It used to be that you needed to be on the cutting edge of hardware to keep up with software, but no more. Now, even budget hardware from years ago is still more than adequate to run most applications. That means that the refresh cycle that used to be three years is being stretched to four, five, and beyond. To make it worse, the companies that skipped Vista are now moving (or recently moved) to Windows 7, and they’re not in a hurry to do another migration.
10: Windows 7
Microsoft is its own biggest competitor with Windows 8 on the desktop and laptop. Windows 7 has been a big success, and for good reason: It delivers on the promises Microsoft has been making now for so long regarding security and reliability. Windows 7 finally “just works.” All the consumers and IT departments that have been clinging to XP far past its prime will be doing the same with Windows 7, and Microsoft is not likely to get them to jump onto the Windows 8 train easily.