There's no doubt about it: Outlook.com is on a tear these days, eager to snatch the email crown back from Google's grasp.
Microsoft recently finished transferring all legacy Hotmail.com users over to its flashy new messaging service, then upped Outlook.com's convenience factor five-fold by integrating Skype calling functionality and a fresh online calendar inspired by--but better than--Windows 8's baked-in Calendar app. For its latest helpful trick, Microsoft is literally tearing a page out of the Google playbook by adding the ability to chat with Google contacts in Outlook.com's messaging pane.
Given the near ubiquity of Google accounts, this is a very good thing for Outlook.com, which already offers the ability to chat with your Facebook and Skype pals while you're slinging email.
Once the feature is activated on your account--the rollout is happening now, so it should appear in the next couple of days--a prompt will ask you to connect your Google account when you open the Messaging pane. After entering your login info, you'll see the now-familiar Google Request for Permission window appear, where you'll grant Outlook.com permission to access your account.
Boom! Done. Your Google contacts will pop up in your Messaging contacts and populate your People contact manager (if you haven't connected your Google account previously, during the dark non-chat-enabled days).
One nifty side effect: Microsoft's Messaging service carries over to its other Metro-tinged web services, namely People and SkyDrive. So, if you're getting your collaborative documentation on with a SkyDrive-based file and Office Web Apps, you'll now be able to chat up your Google-based cohorts while you work--an indubitably helpful addition, especially until Microsoft gets around to adding real-time co-authoring of documents to its online productivity tools.
Microsoft still needs to fix a few niggling flaws before Outlook.com truly goes toe-to-toe with Gmail, but the majority of our nitpicks lie solely in the realm of the power user. Most folks will find Microsoft's web mail service stellar enough already.
Does it have a killer extra capable of coaxing current Gmail users out of their cuddly Google shell? No, but between its polished look and its blossoming list of handy-dandy features, Outlook.com is shaping up as a serious contender for anyone looking to open a new email account.