Hotmail becomes Outlook: we enter the dour world of corporate email

Is the rest of the internet catching up with Google?

Yesterday saw the opening salvo of a marketing bombardment that will see Microsoft try to saturate the online world with awareness of its revamped email service Outlook.com, and which may mark 2013 as the year when the rest of the internet caught up with Google.

Yahoo’s recently broadcast ambition towards regaining its presence as a search provider wasn’t so much a declaration of war against the web multinational as a reminder that there is room for other brands to thrive in people’s daily activity – but now we really do have a fight on our hands.

While Yahoo has pecked at Google’s periphery to distract it, tag-team partner Microsoft is now looming behind with a steel chair, ready to deliver a solid blow to the mailbox.

And going by the numbers so far, the wrestling metaphor isn’t complete hyperbole - during Outlook.com’s "trial period" since last July, the service attracted 60 million signups - including, Microsoft claims – 20 million Gmail defectors.

I will admit that, since I don’t use hotmail and am hardly in the market for a new email provider, I hadn’t been fully aware of the revamp. I certainly am now, and so too will be hundreds of millions of web users, as Microsoft launches a marketing campaign on a scale usually reserved for campaigns to advertise human beings who want to run countries.

Running for pretty much the entirety of the second quarter, the effort will see Outlook.com evangelised across every ad platform from TV to bus flanks, and is expected to set Microsoft back between $30m and $90m.

Much as in a two-candidate political race, Microsoft is even running smear ads on the competition, playing to the growing perception of Google as intrusive and eavesdropping.

The first of these ads pulls no punches, opening with a screenshot of an email about a cat being put down, and superimposing a pair of eerie blue eyes, greedily flickering over private information to find commercial opportunities. In today’s internet, associating your competitor with profiting from cat death is akin to a sixteenth century bishop accusing the miller’s wife of being a witch.

What is Google doing about all this? Well, to be fair, the search titan started offering users the chance to upgrade Gmail to offer a lot of what the new Outlook.com boasts (most notably the ability to send multi-gigabyte files as attachments) some time ago. The problem was that many, like me, hovered warily over the upgrade option before deciding to think about it some other time: we were happy with our mail service as it was and not really looking for a change.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s marketing blitz, as well as Yahoo’s upcoming plans to renew its relevance as a brand, is reminding somewhere between 306 and 425 million Google account holders that there is life outside the bubble. We are certainly curious.

With the functionality of Outlook.com basically analogous with what we have already known through Gmail for most of the last decade, what will determine our eventual choice of provider is basically a question of brand.

I still associate the Outlook brand indelibly with the dour world of corporate email, and using Outlook online with its truly gruesome webmail interface. In the case of Hotmail, which Outlook.com will replace over the coming months, I retain the mid-2000s brand association with people who aren’t web-literate enough to have heard of Gmail.

I suppose it’s a good thing for Microsoft that they’ve earmarked $90m to change my mind.

Microsoft updates. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.