Feb. 19, 2013 at 12:01 AM ET
It's official: Outlook.com will fully replace Hotmail as Microsoft's webmail service. The company will begin to auto-update accounts, and hopes they will be fully migrated from Hotmail to Outlook.com by this summer.
The move was spurred by surprise growth in the Outlook.com mail service, which has amassed 60 million active users in just six months. Microsoft will also remove the "customer preview" label on the product, and launch a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign.
I know the first thing you're thinking: "Does this mean my Hotmail address will just go away?" No. It just means that when you go to hotmail.com, you will be re-routed to Outlook.com, and when you log in on the Web, you will get the Outlook.com experience. You can keep your @hotmail.com email address forever, but you can also use that account to create multiple new @outlook.com email addresses, too, if you so desire.
And let me tell you, you shouldn't wait for Microsoft to switch your old Hotmail service over to Outlook.com. I am an unabashed Hotmail hater, but who can forgive the original webmail service for being so far behind the times? Even when Microsoft spent millions on a "new Hotmail" ad campaign a scant two years ago, nobody was fooled: You still had to refresh the thing every time you wanted to know if you had mail.
Enter Outlook.com, which really can give Gmail a run for its money. It's a very smart service with a very streamlined design, tasteful social integration and auto organization features such as inbox "sweep" and scheduled cleanup. Because of this last bit, it's ideal for use either as a main email or as a "spam account," the kind you provide to online retailers and other data collectors.
(Switching your account over takes almost no effort: Just log into Hotmail then click Settings at the top right — you will see the option to convert to Outlook.)
Though Microsoft was pleased at the sudden growth of Outlook.com users, I grilled David Law, director of product management for Outlook.com, about how many of the 60 million users were just converts from Hotmail's existing 350 million or so accounts. My supposition is that this represents almost all of them, but while Law wouldn't tell me the number, he did say I would be surprised how many were totally fresh.
Law was forthcoming about a different statistic, one that demonstrates Microsoft's target: About one third of the current Outlook.com users are — or, at least, were — also Gmail users.
Outlook.com is a very welcome email option, and — when partnered with the company's SkyDrive cloud storage services — a sign that Microsoft may well regain some traction with consumers looking for reliable Web services.
One of its only obvious problems is that of branding: Because it's called "Outlook," many people (naturally) assume that it is some kind of Web client for managing any email account. It's not. It's a free service, like Gmail or Yahoo mail or, yes, Hotmail, that provides you with an email account. So don't go asking if you can create an Outlook.com account and then add your corporate email to it, because that's like asking if you can take Google Maps and stick Mapquest into it.
Perhaps that's why Microsoft is spending a lot of money on explanatory ads now. Like this one, featuring the irresistable audio stylings of Seattle's own Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: