Microsoft enhances its online mail and calendaring service to better challenge Gmail and other Google cloud offerings.
10 Great Windows 8 Apps
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled a number of enhancements to Outlook.com. It also said that more than 25 million users are now on the cloud-based email, calendaring and messaging platform.
Outlook.com, which launched in July, gets the additions "over the next few weeks," Microsoft said.
For easier archiving, users will be able to select a message, click the Archive button, and the message will automatically be sent to the Archive folder, or any other folder the user chooses. That should be a boon to those who are constantly hitting their storage limit.
Also coming are tools that will let users customize their inbox with colors and other themes. Microsoft has also released a free Outlook.com app for Android phones running Android 2.x or higher. More keyboard shortcuts are also on the way.
It's all part of Microsoft's effort to match Google's cloud efforts, which are centered around the Gmail email service. Microsoft said its research shows that one-third of Outlook.com users are Gmail users trying Outlook.com for the first time.
Redmond went so far as to hire a research firm to recruit hundreds of Gmail users into trying Outlook.com. The company claimed 80% of the test subjects said they would switch to Outlook.com permanently. Reasons cited included what users said was Outlook.com's cleaner interface, superiority when it comes to blocking spam and other unwanted messages, and easer sharing of photos, documents and other content.
Test subjects favorite features also included keyboard shortcuts that lets users add shortcuts to Outlook.com that mirror those they use in the desktop version of the application. They also cited a command that instantly brings up search operators. By clicking the "/" [forward slash] key, users can search through emails based on recipient, subject, sender and more.
Microsoft said test subjects also liked the ability to quickly send a message by hitting the Tab key while working within Outlook.com's composition window. And users now have the option to turn on conversation threading, which allows them to see all responses in a conversation in one view.
Microsoft said Outlook.com is now in use by more than 25 million users, up from about 5 million who began using the product shortly after its initial rollout at the end of July.
"It's still early days," said Outlook.com product director David Law, in a blog post. "We continue to listen to feedback on what enthusiasts want next -- including making the switch from Gmail even easier -- and build those features."
Users responding to Law's post had no shortage of ideas about what Microsoft should add next. "Sort out sending mail through another SMTP server to get rid of the 'on behalf of' and you'll win MANY more users," wrote OnePostWonder. And user Frandom had this suggestion: "When will you add the basic feature of letting me stay signed out of Messenger when visiting Outlook.com."
Outlook.com is free, and includes the Web-only versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and 7 GB of storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive service. Gmail and basic Google Apps are also free, and users get up to 5 GB of storage in Google Drive, 1 GB in the Picasa photo service and 10 GB of Gmail storage.