Barely two weeks after the release of Outlook 2013 Preview and Outlook 365, Microsoft have further unified their email clients by rebranding the Windows Live Hotmail as Outlook. But the question on the minds of all email designers is: does the retirement of Hotmail mean the renewal of an old webmail client, or is Outlook just more of the same?

It’s not hard to feel just a little nostalgic about the Hotmail brand. Launched in July 1996, then acquired by Microsoft in 1997, it was the startup success story of the ’90’s dot com boom. Outside of the tech scene, Hotmail made webmail mainstream – for millions, it was a first email address, a new way to view email anywhere via a browser.

However, today’s transition of all Hotmail accounts to Outlook has closed the door on that. Along with a change of domain, Outlook has completely overhauled the Hotmail interface, bringing it in line with Microsoft’s Metro family of apps:

The new Outlook

Outlook’s rendering remains the same

Appealing to either the enthusiasm or sheer apathy of email designers, Outlook’s CSS support remains identical to that of Windows Live Hotmail. But before the transition to Outlook simply gets written off as a coat of makeup on an aging email client, it’s worth keeping in mind that more has changed than the cull of a couple of gradients.

Images blocked by default

Points of note for email folks is that image blocking has remained the default, except for emails that are manually marked as originating from ‘trusted senders’. Also, the default font for h1, h2 and h3 headings is ‘Segoe UI’, unless you explicitly state otherwise in your CSS styles.

Adding Outlook.com and Live.com addresses to the mix

In what may become the latest online land grab, Outlook has made it exceptionally easy for Hotmail users to claim ‘aliases’, or @outlook.com and @live.com email addresses (plus some localized variants). All mail to these addresses are routed to the original Hotmail/Outlook inbox. The upside to this for senders is a near-unlimited supply of email addresses for testing email campaigns. For recipients, it’s an easy way to transition from a daggy @hotmail.com address to a more professional-sounding @outlook.com email address. It’s likely that we’ll see more of the latter and less of the former in our campaign reports shortly.

Unsubscribes – now with automatic blocking

While Outlook continues to use SmartScreen to separate interesting email from spam and other undesirable messages, the big change is in how unsubscribes are handled. As CNN.com reports:

The service automatically detects and labels newsletters and promotional offers from stores. For emails that Outlook recognizes as an ad, it will add a universal unsubscribe button to the message. Click it, and Microsoft will not only unsubscribe via the retailer, but will automatically filter any future promotions into the trash if that unsubscribe gets ignored.

How this will affect subscribers who unsubscribe in error, or resubscribe a while later is yet to be determined. We hope Outlook will honor incoming newsletters after subscribers rejoin lists and will be sure to let our readers know when we have an answer on this one.

Hasta la vista, Hotmail

Outlook represents a coming of age – it’s as if Hotmail has been deemed mature enough to claim its place alongside Microsoft’s family of home-grown email clients. It’s also grown up to embrace the variety of ways we communicate today, by pulling in content from social networks, as well as instant messages. But for designers, it may feel like more of the same… Depending on your sentiment towards the Metro look and feel, of course.

What do you think of Hotmail’s transition to Outlook? Is it simply a minimalist reskin of their UI, or something more profound than that? Let us know in the comments below.

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