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Microsoft’s Outlook takes aim at Google’s Gmail

Ad campaign attacks its rival

Microsoft will convert all its e-mail services under different domains such as MSN.com and Hotmail to Outlook.com by the summer, if users don’t switch voluntarily first.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/File 2012

Microsoft will convert all its e-mail services under different domains such as MSN.com and Hotmail to Outlook.com by the summer, if users don’t switch voluntarily first.

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft is so confident it has the Internet’s best e-mail service that it is about to spend at least $30 million to send its message across the United States.

The barrage began Tuesday when Microsoft’s twist on e-mail, Outlook.com, escalated an assault on rival services from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., AOL Inc., and a long list of Internet service providers.

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As part of the process, all users of Microsoft’s Hotmail and other e-mail services operating under different domains such as MSN.com will be automatically converted to Outlook.com by the summer, if they don’t voluntarily switch before then. All the old messages, contacts, and settings in the old inboxes will be exported to Outlook.com. Users will also be able to keep their old addresses.

E-mail remains a key battleground, even at a time when more people are texting each other on phones.

People still regularly check their inboxes, albeit increasingly on their smartphones. The recurring e-mail habit provides Internet companies a way to keep people coming back to websites. It gives people a reason to log in during their visits so it’s easier for e-mail providers to track their activities. Frequent visits and personal identification are two of the keys to selling ads, the main way most websites make money.

That’s why Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have been retooling their e-mail services in recent months.

After keeping Outlook.com in a ‘‘preview’’ phase since July 31, Microsoft Corp. is ready to accept all comers.

To welcome new users, Microsoft is financing what it believes to be the biggest marketing blitz in the history of e-mail. Outlook.com will be featured in ads running on prime-time TV, radio stations, websites, billboards, and buses. Microsoft expects to spend somewhere between $30 million and $90 million on the Outlook campaign, which will run for at least three months.

The Outlook ads will overlap with an anti-Gmail marketing campaign that Microsoft launched earlier this month. The ‘‘Scroogled’’ attacks depict Gmail as a snoopy service that scans the contents of messages to deliver ads related to topics being discussed.

The Gmail ads are meant to be educational while the Outlook campaign is motivational, said Dharmesh Mehta, Outlook.com’s senior director.

‘‘We are trying to push people who have gotten lazy and comfortable with an e-mail service that may not be all that great and help show them what e-mail can really do for them,’’ Mehta said.

By Microsoft’s own admission, Hotmail had lost the competitive edge that once made it the world’s largest e-mail service. The lack of innovation left an opening for Google to exploit when it unveiled Gmail nearly nine years ago.

Gmail is now the industry leader, although estimates on its popularity vary.

Google says Gmail has more than 425 million accountholders, including those that visit only on smartphones and other mobile devices. The latest data from research firm comScore, which doesn’t include mobile traffic, shows Gmail with 306 million worldwide users through December, up 21 percent from the previous year. Yahoo’s e-mail ranked second with 293 million users, a 2 percent decrease from the previous year, followed by Hotmail at 267 million users, a 16 percent decline.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Wash., is counting on Outlook.com to catapult the company back to the top of the e-mail heap. During the preview period, Outlook attracted 60 million accountholders, including about 20 million that defected from Gmail, according to Microsoft. Comscore listed Outlook with 38 million users through December.

The new features being introduced in Outlook include: the ability to send massive files, including hundreds of photos at a time, in a single e-mail; address books that automatically update new contact information that connections post on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and about 60 percent fewer ads than Hotmail.

None of these features are revolutionary. Google already has been giving its users the option to switch to a new version of Gmail that also allows for larger files to be sent in a single e-mail. And address books in Gmail already fetch new contact information posted on Google Plus, although it doesn’t yet mine Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Google declined to comment on Outlook.com.

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