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, 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’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 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 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 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 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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.