Microsoft Takes Outlook.com Out Of Preview, Starts Migrating Hotmail Users And Launches “Massive” New Marketing Campaign

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Six months after its initial launch, the preview of Outlook.com, Microsoft’s free webmail service that is meant to replace the aging Hotmail brand and design, now has over 60 million active users according to the company’s own data. Today, Microsoft is officially taking Outlook.com out of preview and will start prompting its 360 million Hotmail users to switch to the new service (while keeping their old email addresses). Microsoft expects to switch all Hotmail users to the new interface and platform by the summer.

Now that Outlook.com is out of preview, Microsoft is also launching a massive new marketing campaign for the service in the U.S., and the company tells me this will be the “largest ever” for a free webmail service. This campaign, which will include TV ads and a number of digital-only videos, will have a very upbeat tone and will not be based on the recent Scroogled campaign. Instead, the new ads focus on Outlook.com’s features and how it plays well with the rest of Microsoft’s suite of online tools, including, for example, SkyDrive.

As Microsoft’s senior director of product management, Dharmesh Mehta told me earlier this week, his team spent the last six months working on scaling the service and preparing it for this transition. Similar to what Microsoft is doing with its migration from Windows Live Messenger to Skype, the transition will be optional at first and become mandatory later on. Unlike the Messenger/Skype switch, Microsoft isn’t staggering the upgrade by geographic location, though. Hotmail users can switch at any time over the next few months. At some point in the future, this switch will become mandatory, but the timing for this remains up in the air.

Microsoft, it is worth noting, always gave Hotmail users the option to move to the new Outlook.com, but it will now actively prompt users to do so and also email them to remind them that they can switch.

Mehta acknowledged that email is “historically a very slow-moving category.” People don’t generally switch between email services very often and are even less likely to abandon their addresses in favor of a new service. Outlook.com, he stressed, lets you keep your Gmail address if you want to switch (over one-third of Outlook.com’s 60 million active users, Microsoft says, switched from Gmail) and current Hotmail users will obviously be able to keep their old @hotmail.com, @msn.com and @live.com addresses.

According to Mehta, Microsoft believes that it now has a very competitive webmail client with features that are on par with Gmail, the service that stole Hotmail’s crown as the most popular free email service. Now that Gmail is becoming more and more complicated, he told me, is a “good opportunity to push people out of their complacency” and get them to try something new.

Microsoft is clearly not shying away from the Gmail comparison. In its press materials for today’s announcement, for example, the company argues that it’s been nine years since Gmail disrupted the email space “and did something basic and offered 1 GB mailboxes. “Things are different today than they were in 2004,” Microsoft writes. “We use new communication services, like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and we have a much greater appreciation for well-designed and well-connected systems.”

Hotmail was obviously a pioneer in the webmail businesses, but over time, @hotmail.com addresses lost their luster as it was eclipsed by its competitors like Gmail. Outlook.com, on the other hand, is a very modern webmail client with numerous smart features like sweep (to quickly clean up your inbox) and active views (to track packages, etc.). Some Hotmail users will obviously dislike the change to the modern, flat interface. Overall, however, this is clearly a major upgrade to Hotmail and may just allow Microsoft to once again compete in this space.

Office 2011 for Mac: same product, now $20 more

If you’ve been shopping for a copy of Office for Mac lately, you’ll be paying higher prices than you would have just a few months ago. On Monday, Mac users began realizing Microsoft’s quiet price hike thanks to an investigation by Computerworld—Office for Mac Home & Student went from $120 to $140, Home & Business went from $200 to $220, and multi-license editions no longer exist. This reflects as much as a 17 percent hike for the same product.

But while this was brought to the public’s attention today, the price hikes most likely came last September when Microsoft announced the pricing of Office 2013. Though there’s no clear evidence that the price of Mac Office was raised in September with the Office 2013 lineup, it seems the most likely explanation, as the prices now match across platforms. Computerworld, meanwhile, theorizes Microsoft raised the price in late January when Office 365 Home Premium was launched.

Regardless, unlike our Windows-using counterparts, Mac users are not getting any fancy new software for the newly bumped price. Office 2011 for Mac today is largely the same as it was in 2012 and 2011, but for $20 more. On the upside, a number of other retailers have held off on adopting Microsoft’s pricing—Amazon, for example, still offers Home & Student edition for $121.

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A Surface Mini Could Wake Up Windows Phone 8

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I love the idea of the Surface: compelling hardware, striking form factor, and, in the case of the Pro, smart compromises to offer a good value. But the products fail to live up to their promise. They have first generation bugs. But maybe a low-priced Surface with a smaller screen could finally help bring the Surface promise to life. It just better run Windows Phone 8 and not Windows RT.

Yesterday at Goldman Sachs Technology & Internet Conference on Wednesday, Microsoft CFO Peter Klein spoke to the Surface and Microsoft’s ability to scale to different form factors. As John Paczkowski lays out, Microsoft could build a Surface Mini.

Both Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone 8 could handle the task. With both options comes compromises, though.

“We can have the same core code base driving form factors from four inches all the way up to 27-inch ones and everything in between,” Klein said. “So I think we are well set up to respond to demand as we see it. We can deliver a versatile set of experiences across form factors, whether they’re four-inch, five-inch, seven-inch, 10-inch or 13-inch.”

Windows 8 requires beefy hardware but can run any Windows application. Windows RT has an extremely limited marketplace of apps and it doesn’t seem to be improving with time. The task seems best suited for Windows Phone 8 even though it’s far from a blockbuster hit yet.

Microsoft’s latest mobile OS is still struggling. It’s fighting for third place against BlackBerry. Android and iOS are simply out of reach. Consumers might not be buying the smartphones en mass, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic user experience.

I love Windows Phone 8, but I wouldn’t use one as a daily driver. The user experience is beautiful. It’s slick, intuitive, and would scale nicely to a larger screen. It doesn’t require serious computing hardware, allowing for tablets with thin form factors and longer battery lives.

Microsoft might not be alone in developing a 7- to 8-inch tablet. Nokia has been said to be working one as well with its reveal coming as soon as next week at MWC.

Even with a beautiful hardware and wonderful OS, it’s pretty clear that a Windows Phone 8 tablet would struggle to gain traction. Even though WinPhone 8 is growing, the platform’s app ecosystem is pretty weak. Developers are not flooding the Store with apps. The platform is relatively unknown to most consumers. And another Microsoft-made tablet platform could be detrimental to the entire operation.

Microsoft is in a precarious situation. It can no longer rely on third parties like HP and Asus to advance its software. The company clearly feels its hardware needs to lead the charge. The first generation Surfaces are good, but not good enough. A smaller form factor model could help rejuvenation the brand once it goes stale in a few months.

Microsoft suggests fix for iOS 6.1/Exchange problem: Block iPhone users

iOS 6.1 devices are hammering Exchange servers with excessive traffic, causing performance slowdowns that led Microsoft to suggest a drastic fix for the most severe cases: throttle traffic from iOS 6.1 users or block them completely.

“When a user syncs a mailbox by using an iOS 6.1-based device, Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Client Access server (CAS) and Mailbox (MBX) server resources are consumed, log growth becomes excessive, memory and CPU use may increase significantly, and server performance is affected,” Microsoft wrote on Tuesday in a support document.

The problem also affects Exchange Online in Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud service. Office 365 customers may get an error message on iOS 6.1 devices stating “Cannot Get Mail: The connection to the server failed.” The Microsoft support article says both Apple and Microsoft are investigating the problem.

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EA exec: Backward compatibility unlikely for next console generation

Those of you hoping to sell off your old Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 if and when you upgrade to the next generation of systems might need to hold on to that hardware. Electronic Arts Chief Financial Officer Blake Jorgensen recently said he doesn’t think the new consoles expected this year will be able to play software from their predecessors.

“An important thing to remember is that next-gen consoles will most likely not be backwards compatible… And if you [play] multiplayer on a game, you’ll most likely not be able to play with someone on a different generation” Jorgensen said to investors gathered at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference (as transcribed by Gamasutra). Because of this potential outcome, Jorgensen added that the company would likely continue to put its main focus on the current generation of consoles for this year’s lucrative sports releases, which need to come out before the new consoles’ holiday launch to stay on track with the sports season schedules.

The PlayStation 3 was originally backward compatible with all previous PlayStations, but subsequent units have slowly eroded the ability to play software designed for the PlayStation 2. The Xbox 360 plays certain games made for the original Xbox through software emulation.

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GameStop: 60% of customers won’t buy console that doesn’t play used games

Last week, a GameStop spokesman alluded to internal research that the company said showed consumers were significantly less likely to buy a console that wasn’t able to play second-hand games, but it wouldn’t reveal the specific results of that survey. Now, a GameStop executive has said publicly that three out of five customers it surveyed said they wouldn’t buy such a system.

“I think it was 60 percent of customers who said they wouldn’t buy a new console [if it blocks used games],” GameStop CFO Rob Lloyd told the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference (as reported by VG247). “Consumers want the ability to play preowned games, they want portability in their games; they want to play physical games. And to not have those things would be a substantial reason for them not to purchase a new console.”

It’s not clear how the survey was conducted, but the results likely come from a self-selected group of customers filling out an online questionnaire for the chance at a cash prize. Furthermore, simply saying you’re against buying a used-game-free system is different from actually refusing to buy a system that has that killer exclusive title you want. And GameStop obviously has an interest protecting the significant profits it makes from used game sales by casting the used game market in the most positive light possible.

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iFixit teardown shows Surface Pro is a tough nut to crack

iFixit’s teardown of the Surface Pro has surfaced (ha!) this morning, and boy, did the iFixit crew have to work for it. Microsoft’s new tablet is one of the best secured, most difficult-to-open devices that the team has ever gotten its hands on. Standing between the crew’s grabby hands and the machine’s tender insides was a gooey layer of tar-like glue and more than 90 screws.

Once the tablet had been pried open—a lengthy process which required heat guns, guitar picks, and no doubt a lot of swearing—the insides were laid bare. Some of the parts are unremarkable, like the mSATA SSD holding all of the Surface’s data (the SSD is a Micron RealSSD C400). Others, though, are quite impressive: the Surface Pro’s battery is an LG-produced “Escalade” lithium-ion unit rated for 7.4V and 5676mAh.

This says a lot about the Surface Pro’s power usage. The battery inside a current-generation iPad has roughly the same capacity (43 Watt hours, versus this battery’s 42) but produces a lower voltage. Even with this large amount of energy available to it, the Surface ekes out a max of five hours of runtime. Microsoft Editor Peter Bright got about four hours of usage out of the tablet, leading him to succinctly comment, “This is not an all-day machine.”

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Going to block used games on your console? Here’s some PR advice

Look—taking away the ability to play used games will always generate some outcry. And so far, consumers have treated the idea of a video game console blocking pre-owned discs as shots fired. For many gamers, it’s a consumer-hostile idea forced on the industry by greedy publishers and console makers. Even the faintest rumors stating that the next Xbox or PlayStation will block used games is enough to generate hundreds of angry comments on Internet forums. They pledge blanket boycotts and argue that the big corporations are shooting themselves in the foot.

This could well be true. But it’s possible to imagine a world in which the powers-that-be use the elimination of the second-hand market as the impetus to shake up the way console gaming retail works. This change could potentially spark benefits for consumers and game makers. (Or at the very least, there’s a way to make this bitter pill easier to swallow.)

It starts with pricing. This is the big elephant in the room when it comes to used console games. Not only does the used game market ensure you can find a game for less than the original retail price soon after release, but it also means you can get a decent proportion of the purchase price back when you’ve finished a game (or if you just plain don’t like it). One of the main reasons digital distribution systems like Steam get away with removing the players’ ability to resell their games is that they often lower prices on games to a ridiculous degree in frequent sales.

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