AOL's famous "You've Got Mail" catchphrase seems so quaint these days, left over from a not-too-distant era when e-mailing felt relatively novel and fresh. That's not to suggest that e-mail is no longer relevant. It remains the go-to way most people communicate in business and in their personal lives. But more and more folks prefer to communicate by text or tweet, or by posting an update to Facebook.
E-mail might never be hip again (to the degree that it ever was hip). But two of the most venerable providers of mail through the years are freshening what had become stale franchises.
Today, Microsoft unleashed the preview of its new Outlook.com mail service, one that's intended to lure people away from Google's Gmail while shoving Microsoft's own Hotmail to the back burner. Microsoft is letting people choose an Outlook.com e-mail address while ditching Hotmail or Live.com. And last week, AOL completed the rollout of a streamlined interface of AOL Mail that was begun months ago.
There's no mystery behind the redesigns. Research firm comScore says Hotmail has 41 million monthly unique visitors; AOL, 24 million. That makes them the No. 3 and No. 4 e-mail providers in the U.S., behind Yahoo Mail, with 84 million unique visitors, and Gmail, 68 million. Worldwide, more than 324 million people still use Hotmail monthly, making it the top provider globally. But Hotmail's user base is on the decline.
The changes that AOL and Microsoft are implementing bring a more modern feel to their webmail. But I'm not persuaded that either provider will convince people tied to another e-mail service to shift loyalties. Overall, Microsoft's changes are more appealing.
Microsoft will downplay ads in its new service. You'll still see them, such as when receiving a newsletter. But you won't be subjected to ads while reading person-to-person e-mails. Overall the new look is clean and attractive. Microsoft says the interface displays 30% more messages than you're accustomed to seeing in webmail. It's minimalist compared with Gmail. Mouse over a message to summon instant icons for deleting, flagging or marking a message as read.
You can opt to exchange your Hotmail.com or Live.com for an Outlook.com account. Outlook, of course, is the familiar name of the e-mail/contacts program that's part of Microsoft's Office productivity suite. You can still take advantage of new mail features if you continue to use Hotmail or other accounts —at least for now. If you don't already have Hotmail or Live.com, you can choose an outlook.com address from the company's website.
Social integration is a big part of the revamped experience. Microsoft lets you populate your address book with friends from Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Twitter and others. When you get mail from, say, a Facebook friend whose e-mail has been made public on the social network, you'll see their Facebook picture when they send you a new message. Status updates and tweets are also visible in a side panel. Microsoft plans to let you do Skype video calls from your inbox, but the feature hasn't been implemented yet.
Several features I like are holdovers from earlier iterations of Hotmail. For example, you can keep the messages you've flagged as important at the top of your inbox, even as new messages come in. You can unflag messages when they no longer require top billing.
As before, "quick views" visible in a side pane collect all the mail with documents, photos, newsletters, shipping updates, social updates and so on into discrete folders. Microsoft distinguishes "graymail" (newsletters, shopping deals) from actual junk, and says graymail actually makes up about 80% of the 15,000 messages the average person receives in a year. A previously introduced "sweep" feature makes it easy to delete or move mail and otherwise clean up your inbox. Handy tools let you save only the last daily deal from, say, Groupon so that you're not bogged down with older offers that are no longer relevant.
Outlook.com is tied into free Web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, letting you make edits from your inbox. Microsoft is giving Outlook.com users unlimited e-mail storage and up to 7GB of storage on its SkyDrive cloud service. But that's down from the 25GB folks used to get through Hotmail on SkyDrive.
I'm one of the many people who still have an AOL account but rarely rely on it anymore. AOL's changes are mostly cosmetic and in my view relatively modest. You still hear the You've Got Mail greeting when logging in. It's like hearing from an old friend from whom you've grown apart.
You can customize your inbox with more than 70 decorative themes and backgrounds or have a different one appear randomly each time. You can choose how tightly your message lines are spaced apart and whether a reading panel, which lets you peek at messages while others are displayed, appears. You can turn labels on or off, and start composing a new message with a single click.
Buttons at the top left corner of your screen let you begin an instant message conversation. Your AIM and other contacts appear in a pane down the lower left side. As before, you can chat with Facebook friends through AIM; the refresh makes it a little easier. You can also send a text message from your inbox. Start typing a name in the "To" field when sending a message, and AOL starts auto-completing the address. But AOL's screen struck me as more cluttered than Microsoft's, with advertising more prominently displayed.