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Ina Fried

Staff Writer, CNET

Microsoft said Wednesday that it’s ready to start offering a paid-subscription version of its Outlook e-mail program, marking the first time the software giant has made a component of Office available as a subscription service.

Known as Microsoft Office Outlook Live, the service includes a subscription version of Outlook 2003 to connect with Hotmail or MSN e-mail accounts. For $59 a year, customers get an e-mail account with 2GB of storage and the ability to send individual messages with up to 20MB of attachments. Customers can also check multiple e-mail accounts, including corporate accounts that are managed through an Exchange server.

With Outlook Live, the software giant is trying to offer more to the power users among the Hotmail crowd–those that use Hotmail extensively but don’t necessarily own a copy of Office, Microsoft lead product manager Brooke Richardson said.

“When it comes down to it, one size doesn’t fit all,” Richardson said.

Richardson said there is potential for more subscription versions of Office products down the road but that there are no immediate such plans.

“We think Outlook is really uniquely suited to it,” she said. “We’ll definitely be watching and learning.”

The company began private testing for Outlook Live in December.

Among its features, the program will automatically synchronize changes made in Outlook with the Hotmail server. It also includes antispam and antivirus tools.

Through April 19, Microsoft is offering a discounted annual rate of $44.95.

Outlook Live will initially be available in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Richardson said the company hopes to expand further, most likely to countries with a high percentage of homes with a broadband Internet connection.

The product is similar to the Outlook Connector feature that is a part of Microsoft’s MSN Premium service, which costs $9.95 a month. However, the Outlook Connector, which works with Outlook 2002 or later, does not include a copy of Outlook.

Microsoft demonstrated an early version of Outlook Connector at a July 2003 meeting with financial analysts. The Connector feature shipped as part of MSN Premium in late 2003.