Microsoft Surface Book laptop (Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

If there's anything that free services have taught us over the last decade or so, it's that they usually pay their bills by making the customer the product. In the case of social media, your personal details are hoovered up and sold for targeted advertising. In the case of webmail like Gmail, Google uses low-key text ads, but Microsoft has elected not to do so for its rival Outlook.com.

However, a recent experience with Outlook.com by Italian blog Aggiornamenti Lumia (Lumia Updates) indicates that Microsoft may intend to shift gears and display ads to users who are not Office 365 subscribers. The Verge reports that this test was not intended to be widely available and has been disabled, according to a Microsoft representative, so the initiative may not end up seeing the light of day.

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As the Verge points out, Windows Mail isn't really free in the sense that Gmail is, because you must ostensibly purchase a copy of Windows 10 to access it, either at a retail store or as a pre-installation on a laptop or desktop PC. As a result, many users would effectively be paying Microsoft to present them with ads in Windows Mail (a phenomenon that already occurs in the Start menu and notifications tray, much to our collective chagrin).

According to Aggiornamenti Lumia, the Windows Mail banner ads were displayed in the "Other" folder, where messages may be placed by the app when it detects that they are unimportant but not spam.

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Removing ads has been a reliably popular perk of paying for an app over the years, but it's unusual to start with an ad-free app, then place ads in it later, then ask a fee to remove those ads. As you might expect, this can easily run afoul of advertising laws that prohibit "bait-and-switch," a sales tactic that presents you with one product and attempts to replace it with another when it comes time to buy.

From Windows 10's launch in summer 2015 until now, the Mail app has not included banner ads inserted by Microsoft, so this change would probably not go over well if it became a permanent addition.

Takeaways

  • Microsoft briefly tested displaying banner ads in the Mail app in Windows 10, as observed by Italian tech blog Aggiornamenti Lumia; users were encouraged to pay for an Office 365 subscription to make the ads go away.
  • By introducing ads in an ad-free product after its release, and telling users that they must pay for a subscription to a separate service to make ads go away, Microsoft may experience obstacles due to consumer protection laws that protect against bait-and-switch sales techniques.

See also

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.