Over the past year, Microsoft has moved to consolidate similar but different products, among them Skype and Skype for Business, and OneDrive and OneDrive for Business. So it should come as no surprise that the software giant is moving Outlook.com ever closer to Office 365. And today, Microsoft announced the first steps it will take toward this consolidation.
Not surprisingly, this consolidation includes upgrading Outlook.com to an Office 365-based infrastructure over time. A bit surprisingly, it means that Outlook.com—which I have always felt has the superior user experience, on the web—is picking up features from Office 365, rather than the reverse. These include a refined inbox experience, new collaboration options, and an upgraded calendar, among others.
The Outlook.com update is rolling out today in preview form, Microsoft says, and is the first step towards this eventual back-end infrastructure migration. The new features will be made available to a broader audience via some form of opt-in program “in the coming weeks.”
Here’s what’s new.
The Outlook.com inbox experience on the web is about to look and work much like that in Office 365. It will pick up the following new features.
Clutter. This Office 365 feature automatically sorts messages you’re likely to ignore into a separate Clutter folder, so you can focus on the important email first. The more you use it, the better it gets, Microsoft says, and you can train Clutter by manually dragging unwanted messages into the Clutter folder (or the reverse). You can also disable it if you don’t need the hand-holding.
Search Suggestions and Refiners. New Search Suggestions quickly highlight the people you communicate with and the content you access most often during search. And Refiners let you pivot (“refine”) your search results based on the sender, folder, date received and attachments. Search results will also include search term highlighting, finally.
New themes. There are 13 new themes with new graphic designs that look awfully similar to the types of themes we see in Office 365.
Link preview. When you paste a hyperlink into an email message, Outlook.com will automatically generate a rich preview. This works with web pages, of course, but also for video links from YouTube and Vimeo.
Inline images. You can now copy and paste images directly into the body of your message.
Pop-out read and compose experience. You can now pop messages out into a new window.
Pins and Flags. Pins are a folder-specific way of keeping important email messages in view. And Flags let you quickly find and manage your items you’ve marked for later follow-up.
Add-in support. As announced at Build 2015 in April, third-party apps from Uber, Boomerang, and PayPal, and later other services, are on the way.
New collaboration features
The following new features help improve the collaboration functionality in Outlook.com, Microsoft says.
Side-by-side views. This is interesting: If you open a Word, PowerPoint or Excel attachment, you can now see it side-by-side with the email message and simultaneously reply to the message. Any changes you make to the document are automatically saved and attached to your response when you hit send, too. And side-by-side view works great with photos as well, Microsoft says.
Improved Skype experience. If you are upset by how terrible Skype integration is with Outlook.com right now, this will hopefully fix that, though Microsoft doesn’t note whether this can be disabled. Cross your fingers.
Simplified OneDrive sharing. When you attach a file to an email message, you can now choose whether to convert it to a shared OneDrive link.
Outlook.com’s Calendar is getting a number of improvements in this update, including improved navigation, simple management of shared calendars, search (yes, finally), and collapsible panels on both the left and right of the display.
Improved mobile web experience
If you access the Outlook.com web site from a mobile device, you’ll be treated to an improved experience with mobile-friendly calendar and contacts views and new features, including swipe gestures and add-in support.
Vote for new features
Finally, Microsoft is starting a new UserVoice site for Outlook.com so that you can vote on new features. This will help Microsoft prioritize which features get added to the service first going forward.