Competition is a beautiful thing. It drives innovation, rewards hard work, and forms the backbone of every productive economy. When it comes to competing products in this day and age, I've found that basic user needs almost always apply across the board; vendors meet certain feature requirements and then the push is on to make the end result as colorful as possible via the "wow" factor.
However, unlike in politics, nowadays the true difference between technological candidates - and hence the key decision point - generally lies in the minutiae, to quote a term one of my college professors overused (along with Old Spice cologne, a smell I now always associate with the Russian Revolution).
Outlook.com is Microsoft's new cloud-based productivity offering (because we've all long past moved basic email, folks - but instead of "grease," productivity is the word that you heard when it comes to groove and meaning). This service debuted in a preview form on July 31st of this year and replaces Hotmail.com in a much-needed refresh of an outdated platform. Microsoft is very much competing with Google Apps in this arena; point for point much of what Outlook.com offers has already been made available for users by Google. The contrasts between the two are where the minutiae can be found.
How are they alike?
I've compared the two platforms via some reviews and hands-on experimentation, and have found the following five similarities stand out the most (aside from the usual mail-contacts-calendar which are the nuts and bolts of any email product).
1. Both are free
Both services are free and immediately available; no special "preview club" (something I vehemently disagree with in principle) applies. If you have a Hotmail or Microsoft Live account you've most likely already got an account there already.
Google Apps offers a 10Gb email storage limit and a 25Mb attachment limit. Outlook.com gives you unlimited email storage and a 100Mb attachment limit (300Mb if the attachment is linked to the Microsoft SkyDrive cloud storage service - more to follow on this option).
Wait: "Unlimited email storage" in Outlook.com? What does that mean? Well, to quote:
"Microsoft Outlook includes email storage that expands to provide you with as much storage space as you need. Your inbox capacity will automatically increase as you need more space."
I remain skeptical that the email is actually unlimited, even in this mega-cheap free disk space era. I think we'll have to wait and see how this one pans out.
2. Both offer file storage
Outlook offers 7Gb of SkyDrive space whereas Google offers 5Gb of Drive space. These file storage features both allow you to share items with other users via emailed links. In fact, Outlook.com will permit you to send a link to SkyDrive file which is 300Mb or less.
The concept of sharing documents in a fixed location this way is far superior to the archaic practice of emailing files back and forth; file size limitations seem to be around 10Mb for many ISPs and email systems I've worked with and this is for a good reason - email shouldn't be used as a file transmission methodology.
3. Both offer documents/spreadsheets/presentations/photos
Just as in the case of Google Apps, Outlook.com offers access to an array of documents, spreadsheets, presentations (which are kept in the SkyDrive space) and photos. You can view and work on these for both personal and business purposes.
4. Both have a "method"
One of my favorite Eddie Murphy comedy routines from the 1980s involves his portrayal of the owner of a Chinese restaurant, trying to figure out how to get people to buy chopsticks for 29 cents. "We need a hook for this," Eddie speculated while in character. "We need an eye-catcher." He then described a sign offering chopsticks for 29 cents with "What a Bargain!" written on it, which attracted a customer who proclaimed "That is a bargain for me!" Basically, Google and Microsoft are both offering eye-catchers to promote the bargain of their own customized interfaces in much the same manner, vying to make their platform stand out.Chances are you're familiar with the method of the simple, straightforward Gmail interface and its de-emphasis on folders in favor of tags as shown in Figure A.
Gmail interfaceOutlook.com has a similar method; it uses the Metro interface they have built for Windows 8, which is fairly clean and unobtrusive, as you can see in Figure B.
Outlook.com interfaceSome elements take a bit of adjustment to get used to. For example, Figure C shows how a new email is composed in Outlook.com; by clicking the "New" button in the toolbar:
ComposeNext, (Figure D) the recipient is entered in the left side of the window.
Enter recipientFinally, the subject is entered in the middle of the window and the body below it (Figure E). Frankly, I thought this a bit awkward.
Subject and body
My colleague Mark Kaelin has provided some more Outlook.com screenshots.
5. Both offer mobile access
This should be a given in 2012. Both services can be accessed from a number of mobile devices. Outlook.com will work on Windows phone, iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry and other options, but there is a significant omission which I'll reveal below.
So, how are they different?
There are more than five differences, but here are the ones I consider the most interesting and noteworthy.
1. Social connector
Outlook.com has a social connector which allows you to link your account to Facebook, Twitter, and to chat with friends on Outlook.com or Facebook. This is a big step towards integration of all your communication services. In contrast, Gmail has barely started to dabble in social sites, with a few tie-ins to Google Plus (however, third-party plugins such as Rapportive are available to fill the gap).
Outlook.com touts less ads and Microsoft states it won't scan user content/attachments and sell the information to advertisers. For those concerned about privacy (see my recent article on the subject) this could be a significant attraction.
3. Preview pane
Outlook.com offers a preview pane which Gmail doesn't. This is a small thing, but a perfect example of the minutiae that can make a solution. A preview pane makes navigating through email so much more efficient compared to manually opening messages.
4. Disposable email addresses in Outlook
This is a huge benefit. I understand the need to curtail spammer activity but sometimes the methods used to achieve this also increase the amount of suffering inflicted upon civilized users in this world. To have to register with a site merely to post a comment seems inane, but disposable addresses - which can help shield you from later receiving tons of unwanted emails from said site - are a great idea since you can remove the email addresses later.
5. No IMAP for Outlook.com
I saved the biggest difference for last. Outlook.com cannot be accessed via IMAP, which might also impact a user's ability to connect to their email via a mobile device depending on their available options. If your smartphone has a decent web browser you'll probably be okay with this one, but if you prefer the native phone email client and IMAP is what you're used to, this might be a pinch.
I'm impressed with the offerings from Outlook.com. I think they represent a great makeover for Hotmail and am glad to see them up the ante on how email - I mean, productivity - services should operate. This doesn't mean I think Google Apps should slip into the back seat; not by any means. Competition is what drives companies to excel, but it also works to motivate other companies to respond to new and formidable challenges.
Google has its work cut out for them; while I don't see a significant amount of users - much less organizations - on the verge of switching their allegiance to Outlook.com based on the differences between the products, it's up to Google to retain these users and show them what lies down the road and reward their loyalty. The race should be interesting and fulfilling.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.