It’s been coming for some time now but Microsoft finally pulled the plug on its long-running webmail service, Hotmail, a couple of weeks ago – migrating all current users to the new Outlook service.
There was little warning in terms of a prominent notice within the interface (instead the only people who knew exactly when it was coming did so because they open their emails from Microsoft, which I personally do not). In any case advance warning would have been slightly pointless since the upgrade was both mandatory and irreversible.
Considering the fact that Hotmail was one of Microsoft’s precious few successful web products in the Google-dominated age, you’d think they’d be very careful about changing it and keen to ensure loyal users didn’t see the upgrade as a prompt to jump ship to a competitor such as Gmail. Well, having had a couple of weeks’ worth of experience with the new Outlook since the change, I’m now pretty convinced that Microsoft can wave goodbye to its formerly modest but stable share of the webmail market. Here’s why:
1. Outlook is slow – seriously slow. I’ve used Hotmail for almost 10 years and emails have always opened instantly when I clicked on them. Now I get an odd progress bar type of graphic at the top of the page and a second or two delay before the email displays. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s annoying considering it was never there before and isn’t present with my Gmail account for example.
2. The subtle but very useful colour coding is gone from the interface. So where previously unread emails were shaded slightly differently from read ones (meaning it was much easier to know where you were at a glance) now the only difference between read and unread emails is that the text for unread ones uses a bold font for the sender and a different colour font for the subject line.
It is now requires more effort basically to quickly scan your inbox to see which emails are opened and which aren’t. Likewise ‘replied to’ arrow labels, which are also useful, have been re-designed so they’re now in an almost unoticeable grey colour – again meaning that navigating the inbox is a lot slower than before.
3. Outlook is very keen on you integrating Skype and Facebook (among others) to your account. So much so that you get annoying messages after every email you send to someone who is also ‘on facebook’ asking if you’d like to integrate your account. This is probably annoying more people than are integrating accounts so again I’d say that the balance between what the user wants versus what Outlook/Microsoft want has been skewed a bit too far in the latter’s favour.
Nonetheless, it is easy to see why Microsoft are keen on the ‘upgrade’ – the new Outlook interface matches the design style for Windows 8 and, more importanly, it offers integration with cloud services such as Skydrive and Calendar – a key aspect of the battle to keep up with Google’s fully integrated webmail service (which also offers Drive, Calendar and a host of other products as cross-compatible). However, what is much harder to fathom is why the new Outlook is so poor in terms of speed/performance and in terms of the user interface - which involves various minor changes to the previous Hotmail interface, all of which inexplicably make the user experience worse.
Maybe, given a bit of time, these issues will be resolved but it’s still pretty astounding that Microsoft could ‘upgrade’ one of its only successful web products so rashly and haphazardly. Most Hotmail users also make use of Google services as well – and I’d be willing to wager that quite a few see this ‘upgrade’ as an opportunity to consolodate their accounts under the Google umbrella, migrating to Gmail for their webmail needs. In this respect, the Outlook upgrade starts to look like quite an unneccessary gamble, purely because of the inadequacy of the new Outlook product compared with the supposedly inferior Hotmail or with competitors like Gmail.