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

Is the rest of the internet catching up with Google?

Microsoft updates. Photograph: Getty Images

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.