As I'm sure most internet savvy folks are aware by now, Microsoft launched it's new Outlook service to replace hotmail this week. It's premier attractions appear to be social integration, with support for numerous popular social networks including the usual suspects and soon Skype, coupled with more advanced sorting and filtering functionality for better inbox management. Compared to hotmail, this is awesome stuff and on the face of it could be a serious challenge to GMail if users can be persuaded to switch, particularly as Google's vested interest is in G+ integration at the exclusion of competitors at least in the short term while the service finds it's feet. I suspect however that this is a far more clever move by Microsoft than just to bolster and reinvigorate its dwindling e-mail user base. Microsoft is looking at the launch of two flagship products intended to somewhat reinvent the Microsoft brand for an evolved computing world: Windows 8, and the Surface tablet. Both of Microsoft's primary rivals have well-developed, integrated and feature-rich email and social platforms. Apple has iCloud with e-mail and iMessage, twitter and (soon) Facebook integration throughout its ecosystem and Google has Gmail, G+ and a plethora of apps that integrate to provide a stunning range of largely platform independent functions.
In order for Windows 8 to be a success, it needs to offer it's users a similar suite of rich and well-integrated software and cloud-based tools just to match the usability of it's rivals. I suspect that this is just one (giant) step in the unification and integration of a number of Microsoft services that hinge on the Live ID account foundation, such as XBox and Window's gaming, instant messaging and media consumption. Microsoft learned with Windows Phone 7 that they can't jump into the pool only half-ready; lacking features and glacial development severely stunting the uptake of WP7 devices. This is a very well timed move, with a couple of months for users to bed into the new service which should hopefully mean that the transition to Windows 8 on a PC or a tablet is as smooth as possible.