Microsoft’s Outlook.com an ideal tool for telecommuters

Most feds, like a lot of other people, probably abandoned Hotmail a long time ago, letting hackers, scammers and the dredges of the Internet have what has become an unsecure hive of scum and villainy.

But now it seems Microsoft is knocking down those slums in a fit of urban renewal, relaunching the service as Outlook.com. It will eventually replace Hotmail altogether, though users have been told that they can keep their @hotmail addresses if they really want to.

Anyone can sign up now to see what the fuss is about and reserve their an @Outlook.com e-mail address, though the service is technically still in the testing phase. After spending some time with it, I have to say that I’m very impressed with the power and functionality the new site offers.

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This is pretty much what webmail should have been from the very beginning. It’s a veritable sea change, and I don’t think any other e-mail program could help serious workers be more productive.

Outlook.com is more of a command center than a simple e-mail interface. In fact, I could easily see telecommuting employees logging into Outlook.com in the morning and doing most of their work-related tasks right from that one place all day. Part of the service includes the full suite of Office Web Apps, which are online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Outlook.com Word app thumbnail

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And you also get access to the SkyDrive cloud storage service. So if your boss needs you to edit a document or even create a PowerPoint presentation, you can do so right from the Outlook service and then send it along, or store it in the cloud for later use. It looks like Microsoft is giving people 7 G worth of storage, which is pretty generous.

Most social networking sites can be tied into the new Outlook.com as well. From one site, you can manage your LinkedIn, Facebook and even Gmail contacts. A Twitter management section is said to be coming soon.

Once you’ve got your command center all set up, you can do almost everything with those services without ever leaving your webmail program. You can even see when your contacts from those other services are online, and when they post activity. And you can post to your LinkedIn or Facebook accounts yourself, just as easily as if you were actually on those pages.

Moving back and forth between applications is done either automatically from an e-mail or by clicking on a colorful button, which pretty much looks like the interface for the upcoming Windows 8.

It’s not ready yet, but Microsoft says that Skype will get its own integration too, which makes sense now that the company owns the over-the-Web conferencing service. This will make Outlook.com even more powerful. If you are typing back and forth with someone and need to actually speak with them, presumably a conference call could be initiated with the touch of a button.

With so many helpful, business-friendly features, it’s almost easy to overlook the actual e-mail interface itself, which is vastly cleaned up over anything else. I think I may actually prefer it to my desktop version of Outlook. Outlook.com attachments thumbnail

E-mails are divided up into different areas, or buckets, and the program does a great job of letting you sort business and personal contacts. It can identify special traffic like newsletters or even spam and send it to the appropriate places. People who like to micromanage their e-mail programs will have a very easy time making Outlook.com even more functional, while the rest of us can coast along with the default settings and still do pretty well.

The one area that worries me just a bit is security. Not because Outlook.com is less secure than other sites, but because you can group so much of your business and personal life in one place. That makes it a tempting target. If someone breaks into your Outlook.com account, they could get access to more than just e-mail.

I was happy to see the sign-up questions for Outlook.com included a phone number and security questions, but those are only really helpful once you know your account has been hacked. I would suggest that Microsoft strongly encourage and integrate a security key solution into Outlook.com, of the type that I have seen used for some cutting-edge online games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, and also for some banking applications.

They can run from any smart phone or a dedicated key, and completely keep an account locked down even if someone guesses the password. Given that Outlook.com is putting so much information at a user’s fingertips, it makes sense to go the extra mile to make sure they are the right fingers every time.


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