I try not to judge any new tool or platform before giving it a thorough run for its money (and I love trying out new things, pretty much all the time). That was the case with Outlook.com, launched back in February 2013. I signed up pretty much the same day it became publicly available. That means I’ve been using it for just about 4 months now.
Some of the stuff I really like about Outlook.com: You can turn all the social stuff off. If you just want a pure email client, no Twitter or Facebook or Google+ prompts everywhere, Outlook is great at that. I like the way downloads within an email are presented, and the clean interface as compared to Gmail. There’s much less stuff on the screen, period.
Importing all my mail from Gmail to Outlook.com was a relatively painless experience, although the search does leave a little to be desired. The mobile apps, to be honest, are not great. Outlook.com on my Android keeps logging itself out, and is just barely usable. Outlook.com offers integrated IM with MSN (presumably Skype, too), Facebook and Google, all from the web interface, which is a nice touch.
Not having to deal with ads in Outlook.com is also a nice touch, although far from a dealbreaker. The People, Calendar and Skydrive systems follow the same design pattern as Windows 8 itself – which must be great for change-averse technophobes (possibly Microsoft’s target audience).
I’m quite enjoying Skydrive, too – it’s nice not having to convert Office documents into Google format before being able to edit them (or at least, severely mangled versions of them). Their storage upgrade options are also very cheap, only costing R84/year for 20gb of storage, although the entire stack (service, desktop and mobile app) feels much more unresponsive when compared to, say, Dropbox.
Possibly my biggest annoyance (and this may well be a bug, but it has remained unfixed for over a year now), is with multiple email addresses. I signed up with firstname.lastname@example.org while Outlook.com was in Preview, and when they introduced @outlook.com aliases I grabbed email@example.com. It took them a few more months to allow logins with @outlook.com addresses, which is fine – now, it seems to randomly select a From: address on every mail I compose, and occasionally it just loses an entire address, meaning I need to log out and back in again.
So why even bother with the competition? Gmail got annoying for several reasons, one of them being the absolute persistence with pushing Google+. I get that Google has a singular vision for what social networking and interpersonal communication should look like, but I’m not particularly in favour of having that constantly thrown at me when I’m just trying to go about the business of sending and receiving email.
Another big reason was the assumption (possibly naive) that having an end-to-end Microsoft personal tech stack would make things easier. Windows 8 on your desktop, Windows 8 on your phone, your Xbox in the living room, an Outlook.com address in the cloud. Everyone speaking the same language.
As it turns out, it’s not that simple. “Sprawling” would be a good word to describe Microsoft’s tech teams. “Disjointed” is another. The people working on the OS are almost never talking to the people working on the web apps, who aren’t talking to the mobile app developers, who aren’t talking to the Xbox division. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like to me.
Given the feature disparity, overlap, and general not-fitting-togetherness of all the Microsoft solutions currently available, they may as well have been cobbled together from a handful of open-source projects.
The mobile Outlook.com app can’t do everything that the web app can do, and the Outlook.com web app is entirely different to the (far more sophisticated) Outlook Web App, which is used as a frontend for the Exchange 2013 server (which, sadly, doesn’t have a mobile app).
Skydrive has at least 4 different versions with apps that don’t interoperate (you can’t log in to your company Skydrive using your personal Skydrive app). You actually need 2 different desktop Skydrive apps installed to talk to the personal and corporate clouds respectively, and the corporate cloud doesn’t even have a mobile app out yet. This is of course not to be confused with the Skydrive Metro app, which is for personal accounts only, or with Skydrive, which is what Sharepoint 2013 refers to your personal cloud storage space within your company.
You can add your Microsoft account to Windows 8, to use the built-in Mail, People and Calendar Metro apps, which doesn’t connect at all to (the far, far more powerful) Outlook for Desktop, which is a program you get if you pay for the personal Office 365 cloud, not to be confused with the corporate Office 365 cloud.
You can install Skype, but that requires a Microsoft account, and lets you talk to your Skype and (old) MSN friends. You can’t sign into Skype with a corporate Microsoft account, since that is what Lync is for, although Lync has a limited federation with Skype. I haven’t yet figured out how to connect my Xbox to Skype, but at this point I’m not remotely interested.
Google faces much the same challenge, when it comes to various departments and teams that don’t really talk to eachother, but they’ve actually managed to identify a spearhead (Google+) around which to focus all of their other services, and the impression I’ve been getting over the last few months is that the new features are playing together much better.
In due time I’ll probably find myself back in the Google environment. I’m (hopefully) getting a Samsung Galaxy S4 in the near future, and given the relative coherency of Google’s offering, I’d rather switch back to that, than deal with the Microsoft solution disparity.
It may also have something to do with my steadily-declining faith in Microsoft’s ability to retain market leadership, though that’s a topic for a separate discussion entirely.