Microsoft launches revamped email service

More than 324 million people worldwide have a hotmail.com account, and the Microsoft-operated online email service has had a timely revamp.

My Microsoft account goes back to the days of msn.com addresses, but it is a hotmail.com account, nevertheless. I never needed to change addresses as my account has followed me wherever I go.

A disclosure that I also have Gmail, Yahoo, Fastmail and Xtra email addresses.

Last week, Microsoft launched a revamped Facebook-friendly version of its free email service in an attempt to reverse market share losses to Google's fast-growing Gmail.

The Hotmail service is being renamed Outlook, a term familiar to many who use Microsoft Office products.

Webmail was first introduced with Hotmail in 1996. Back then, it was novel to have a personal email address you could keep for life, one that was totally independent from a business or internet service provider.

Eight years later, Google introduced Gmail, which included 1GB of storage and inbox search.

While Gmail and other webmail services, such as Hotmail, have added some features since then, not much has fundamentally changed in webmail during the past eight years.

The Microsoft blog said the company realised it needed to take a bold step and break from the past and build a new service from the ground up.

"Already you know Outlook via the Outlook desktop application for PCs and Macs as the world's most popular application for reading email, managing a calendar and connecting to people. And you may have used the Outlook web app connected to Exchange Server. Now, in addition to a desktop application and a service for businesses, we're offering Outlook as a personal email service."

The address given is Outlook.com. Over the next few months, users will be prompted to switch to the new service.

Microsoft said the service was currently a "preview", meaning more features would likely be added before the final version was launched.

Email is not just about the browser any more, with Microsoft saying email represented 20% of the time we spend on smartphones. It was used extensively on tablets as well as PCs.

Outlook was designed cloud first, so all of users' email was always available.

Hotmail has about 36% of the global market but it is losing customers to Gmail, which now has 31% of the market. Yahoo Mail remains static on 32%.

Microsoft corporate vice-president of Windows Live Chris Jones said in a blog post the new look for Hotmail was clean and uncluttered, featuring lots of white space, reminiscent of Google's recent makeover of Gmail.

Relatively unobtrusive advertisements appear in a column to the right of the screen when looking at folders. They do not appear when a message is open.

Users can link up their Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Google+ accounts to see the latest updates from friends and contacts. Online chat is available through Facebook.

Newsletters, offers, daily deals and social updates make up more than 80% of a typical inbox, according to Microsoft's research.

Mr Jones said to help combat that overflow, the new service automatically detected mass messages and put them in separate folders. Users could customise the process to sort mail any way they wanted. People also used email to share photos and work together on documents so also included were free Office web apps - Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote - which let users view and edit attachments without leaving their inbox. Outlook.com also came with SkyDrive so users sending photos, documents or just about any other file could put then on SkyDrive and not worry about attachment limits, he said.

Given the concerns about email privacy, Microsoft said it did not scan email content or attachments and sell the information and did not show advertisements in personal conversations.