Longtime users of Hotmail, MSN and other Microsoft email services will start noticing a big change: When they sign in to check messages, they'll be sent to a new service called Outlook.com.
You might be thinking, isn't Outlook the software Microsoft Corp. makes for people to use email at work? Indeed it is, but Microsoft is now adopting that brand for personal, Web-based email services as well. It's part of a broad makeover that includes the company's overhaul of the Windows operating system and the Office software suite.
There's little relationship between the two Outlooks apart from the name. That's good. The Outlook Web App I use for checking work email at home feels like an adaptation of software meant to be installed on work computers, rather than something designed from the start to play to the Web's strengths. The consumer Outlook.com, on the other hand, feels the way Web email should. It bears more similarities with consumer-based email services, such as Google's Gmail and Yahoo Mail, than with the corporate Outlook.
People have been able to sign up for Outlook.com email addresses and use the new interface as a "preview'' for several months now. Microsoft made Outlook.com official on Tuesday and plans to spend millions of dollars to advertise it. Microsoft is even starting to force people using older Microsoft email services to switch to Outlook.com. If you've already tried Outlook.com on a browser, you might find your other accounts automatically upgraded the next time you sign in. Others will be moved over starting this summer.
One important note: People will be able to keep their existing addresses while using Outlook.com. There's no need to print new business cards replacing Hotmail with a new Outlook.com address. But if you want to change your address, you can get a new one for free. In fact, at least for now, it's still possible to get new Hotmail and Live addresses by signing up through Hotmail.com or Live.com, rather than Outlook.com.
You'll see a lot of improvements when you switch, though nothing feels revolutionary if you've already been using Gmail.
By revolutionary, I mean something along the lines of what Gmail did to email when Google introduced it in 2004.
First, Gmail scrapped the use of folders to organize older messages. Instead, it gives you labels, and you can apply as many as you want to a particular message. So an email among friends to make plans for "The