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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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.