Microsoft is trialling a new-look version of its prized webmail client, wagering that a refreshed Metro-style UI, improved social network integration, and smoother links with its native cloud service will help to revitalise the existing Hotmail brand and seduce users away from rivals like Gmail.
As part of the bid to revive its growth in the email hosting market, Microsoft is rebranding the service as Outlook - a moniker no doubt familiar to corporate workers who use Microsoft's flagship Office suite.
The revamped online messaging service will borrow some aspects from the Office desktop client, but in the main will seek to reinvent itself as a more user-friendly experience in line with other forthcoming Microsoft software and service releases, namely Windows 8.
Specifically, Microsoft will look to minimise clutter and chrome in its new email client, foregrounding white space and endeavouring to make controls more context-aware - buttons not necessary on individual screens should disappear automatically, it is claiming. The existing Hotmail homepage has been cleaned up as well, meaning that users can now choose between the more traditional client and the refreshed version (top).
In addition, Outlook webmail will offer greater social media integration, with users able to link up to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ accounts straight from the service to see updates from friends, family, and contacts.
"We think the time is right to reimagine email, so today, we're introducing a preview of Outlook.com. We realised that we needed to take a bold step, break from the past and build you a brand new service from the ground up," wrote Microsoft's Chris Jones in a blog post announcing the service.
According to recent findings, Hotmail is still the largest online mail service in world with some 324 million users, or about 36 per cent of the global market. Yahoo Mail remains static on 32 per cent, while Google's Gmail is the fastest grower in the market, currently on 31 per cent and rapidly rising.
Web-based email providers are increasingly looking to site and UI makeovers as a means of staying competitive. AOL's service got its first refresh in five years recently, while Google itself upgraded its Gmail client by giving it Google+ Hangout integration in place of traditional chat.