(Credit: Microsoft)

In the early 2000s, free webmail services were so common that you probably couldn't go a day without seeing an offer, but the field has more or less narrowed to a small handful of players: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Proton Technologies. Google's Gmail (Android, iOS) is the de facto service for 1.8 billion users a month, but Microsoft keeps plugging away at Outlook, since it's part of their continually successful Office 365 suite of productivity apps.

On that note, Microsoft has just announced several new updates today for the iOS version of Outlook, bringing in mostly quality-of-life changes with an updated aesthetic that arguably feels more in line with Apple's app design philosophy.

SEE: Microsoft's Office Web Apps to offer voice dictation to help people with dyslexia

The Verge also reports that Microsoft is working on a dark mode for a future update. Although this hasn't surfaced for public viewing yet, we can say in principle that the addition would be welcome, especially this time of year. In the northern hemisphere, where the overwhelming majority of the world's population lives, the days of December are short as they come, and the nights are long.

Toward that end, Outlook's stark white interface is gone, replaced with a large blue banner at the top that also gets the profile picture from your Microsoft profile. The hamburger menu button is also gone; to access its functions, you now tap your profile pic instead.

Microsoft waxes poetic in its description of the iOS refresh: "[W]e're introducing new sensory feedback to create a resonant experience with the device cradled in your hand. When you swipe right or left on an email, subtle changes in color, shape, and iconography unfold. The corners of the message transform from hard-edged to soft and round, metaphorically pulling that item away from the message list and sending it where you want it to go -- with haptic feedback."

You can practically hear Jony Ive speaking these lines in his distinctively posh British accent; the word "craftsmanship" appears four times in the announcement, pointing toward an almost artisanal shift in how Microsoft perceives, or at least describes, its apps for an Apple-specific audience that's used to a premium experience.

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But there does appear to be more going on than aesthetic upgrades. Office Chief Designer Jon Friedman indicates several areas where Microsoft is also attempting to improve your workflow.

For example, other Microsoft account users will have their profile pics displayed next to their messages in your inbox, which may help visually inclined users prioritize at a glance. The bold blue banner at the top of the app's screen is also intended to help you spot it in the iOS task switcher (and it's a blue specific to the Outlook brand, which is replicated for Android, Windows, and Macs for easier identification across platforms).

Will these changes be enough to peel people away from Gmail or the pre-installed Mail app? Or will it just prevent Outlook users on iPhones and iPads from switching to something more iOS-like? We'll see how it plays out.

Takeaways

  • Microsoft has announced a refreshed look for the iOS version of Outlook, with a more colorful aesthetic and some behaviors that may improve your workflow. These changes start rolling out today.
  • Separately, Microsoft tells The Verge that a dark mode is coming to a future update.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.