Analysts: At first pass, Outlook.com looks underwhelming

The new webmail service from Microsoft, now in preview phase, doesn't look revolutionary to several industry experts

Outlook.com, which Microsoft is positioning as a reinvention of its Hotmail and of competing consumer webmail services, appears at first glance more evolutionary than groundbreaking, according to several industry analysts.

"This will probably appeal to Microsoft loyalists and those tied to the Outlook email client. However there aren't any features here that on their surface appear revolutionary," Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence said via email.

Launched on Tuesday in public preview mode, Outlook.com will eventually replace Hotmail, and Microsoft expects that it will also steal users from competing consumer webmail services like Google's Gmail and Yahoo Mail.

Saying that its goal with Outlook.com is to "reimagine personal e-mail -- from the datacenter all the way to the user experience," Microsoft is presenting it as a next-generation product that offers significant advances and improvements over Hotmail and competing services.

Microsoft highlighted Outlook.com's "clean" and "intuitive" user interface, which prioritizes messages over elements like headers and search boxes, and which doesn't feature display ads.

Microsoft also trumpeted Outlook.com's ability to be synchronized across a variety of devices, and its native integration with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google and, in the near future, Skype.

Outlook.com also sorts messages of different types into separate buckets, so that, for example, users can prioritize reading email from contacts over newsletters they're subscribed to.

Outlook.com also includes Office Web Apps, the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, along with the SkyDrive cloud storage service.

Still, Sterling doesn't find the features earth-shattering. "The absence of display ads might lure some people from Yahoo but I don't think there's -- so far -- enough here to gain many converts from Gmail," he said.

Gartner's Matt Cain also found Outlook.com to be less exciting than Microsoft is making it out to be. "There really is no new technology here -- the filtering tools have been around for some time as well as the social network integration," he said via email.

"What is new is the cleaned-up user interface, and the marketing spin, and the tight integration with Office Web Apps and Skydrive, and the forthcoming integration with Skype," Cain added.

With Outlook.com, Microsoft is trying to stem the loss of Hotmail users who no longer think Hotmail is cool, and better compete against Gmail, whose interface remains a source of frustration for a segment of its users, he said.

There is also an attempt to create a "horizontal consumer portal" with Office Web Apps, SkyDrive and Skype, as well as position Outlook.com as a central clearinghouse for users' social networking activities.

"Outlook.com represents reverse 'consumerization' -- taking a ubiquitous business tool and recrafting it for the consumer market," Cain said.

Meanwhile, IDC's Al Hilwa said that Outlook.com fits into the trend among providers of consumer online services that provide "an online home" for users.

"Players are connecting their online assets together and hoping to provide convenience and functionality of a one-stop-shop of services," he said via email.

Microsoft has some significant assets that it can tie together here, like Skype and the Office Web Apps, but success is far from guaranteed, Hilwa said.

"The success of this venture will depend on the pace of research and development and whether Microsoft can continue to evolve it fast enough to keep up with a brutally fast Google and a potentially re-invigorated Yahoo," he said.

After it is released in final form, Outlook.com will replace Hotmail, but Microsoft will allow users to retain their @hotmail.com, @live.com and @msn.com addresses as well as their contacts, messages, password and rules.

Outlook.com shares its brand with the Outlook email and calendaring PC application, and with Outlook Web App, which gives Exchange users access to their accounts via a browser.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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