Let’s be honest: Microsoft’s new Outlook.com email service is just Hotmail totally revamped.
In fact, when I signed up for the service on my iPad, the whole sign-up process was totally new, totally Outlook.com. But when I was done, I was sent to Hotmail with a welcome-to-Hotmail message in my inbox.
The comedy continued: Once I opened my account on my laptop, I had a Welcome-to-Outlook message — and the welcome-to-Hotmail message, too.
That Outlook.com is just Hotmail isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s refreshing to see Microsoft recognize that it has a few poisoned brands, with Hotmail as one of them. The new name is good.
In fact, the whole service is good. The design is Metro-ish and very modern. It feels good to use.
And Microsoft has added, or plans to add, powerful new features like Skype video. But the best thing about Outlook.com is the service’s contacts feature, called “People.”
Why I’m a ‘People’ Person
Outlook.com integrates with Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as other services such as Yahoo and Linkedin.
This is an impressive feat in itself, given the politics of social networks.
Apple gets along with Facebook and Twitter, but not Google. Facebook is out to get Google and Twitter, and is therefore making strategic alliances with Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo.
Google is willing to get along with everyone, as long as the contacts data sharing goes both ways. Which it doesn’t. So they don’t.
The end result is that social networks typically let you import contacts, but often not from “enemy” services.
Twitter lets you import from Google but not Facebook.
Google doesn’t let you import from either Twitter or Facebook.
And Facebook doesn’t let you import from Google or Twitter.
All these services will point fingers at each other (mostly at Facebook, actually). But as a user, who cares? We just want all our contacts together in one address book.
And Microsoft gives us that in Outlook.com.
Outlook’s “People” feature lets you integrate contacts from Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as from other sites and sources.
Note that I said “integrate,” not import. The difference is that when you “connect” to the social services, to use Microsoft’s term, it doesn’t really import them. In other words, it doesn’t copy the address book. It merely points to it.
If you want to delete a contact “imported” from Facebook, for example, you can’t do it from Outlook.com. You have to do it from Facebook. Only contacts created in the Outlook.com “People” area can be deleted from Outlook.com.
The People feature lets you auto-merge contacts. The feature isn’t very bright, and often can’t tell that your three contact entries for “Steve Ballmer” are all the same guy. And there’s no way I could find to merge them manually. I’m sure they’ll fix that.
In the meantime, the successfully auto-merged contacts show you the person with all the contact info, plus an icon showing where the data has come from.
The best thing about this arrangement is that your family, friends and colleagues manage their own contacts, so you don’t have to.
In other words, if your friend on Facebook changes his email address, that change will simply show up in Outlook.com. You may not even notice that your email continues to get delivered to the current and correct address, even after it changes.
Again, Outlook.com is new, and still lacking in functionality.
But the basic service, which links to all the major social services, rather than importing them, is exactly what we need for our contacts.
If Microsoft can leverage this into an electronic business card service, where I can use any phone to exchange my own contact information with anyone else using any other phone, then Microsoft will give us all a real reason to use Outlook.com.
It also has to be said that Outlook.com’s “People” interface is currently the best in the business.
Managing contacts on Facebook, for example, is a horrendous throwback to some bygone and forgotten era. Google’s is improved, but still a little clunky.
The “People” interface is big and bold and clear. It will work great on tablet interfaces, but still works on PCs.
I really hope Microsoft doesn’t drop the ball on this one. They should continue to develop the “People” feature and turn it into everybody’s default contacts application.