Microsoft’s Hotmail online email service claims to be the world’s largest, with over 360 million users. However, it’s no secret that Hotmail is getting pretty long in the tooth—and faces stiff competition from the likes of Yahoo Mail and Google’s Gmail. Now, Microsoft is previewing its next version of Hotmail, due to launch this summer. The update will be a major revamp to the service aimed at improving message management, making it simpler to deal with attachments and media, playing better with mobile devices, and—eventually—tying in with Microsoft’s Web-based office applications.
“Email has changed a lot over the last five years,” wrote Microsoft’s Dick Craddock in a blog post announcing the new Hotmail. “These days, you’re getting more email than ever—email that often requires you to leave your inbox to complete an action; you’re getting bigger and bigger attachments; and you’re using smart phones where you want to sync not only your email, but your contacts and calendar, too.”
Hotmail’s new inbox aims to be more useful to people by letting folks group messages by thread or conversation (a feature that’s long been available in Gmail), as well as quickly filter on messages from particular sources (like Facebook, Amazon, or mailing lists). The Inbox will display a quick summary of new items grouped by category (contacts, social updates, and flagged items), and a new “sweep” feature lets users quickly get rid of legitimate mail that they don’t really want—like updates from retailers you aren’t shopping with anymore to that annoying constant stream of photos of your friend’s “cute puppy” that long ago turned into an ugly mutt.
Hotmail will also feature an “Active View” feature that will preview message attachments and enable users to see images as a slideshow in a single click—and it’ll work not just for photos sent as attachments but also for photo links shared through services like Flickr and SmugMug. For sending photos, Hotmail will tap into Windows Live SkyDrive so users can send as many as 200 photos in a message without worrying about bandwidth and storage limits: recipients get a link to an online album where they can peruse the photos at their leisure (and, undoubtedly, Microsoft can hit them up to install Silverlight or sign up for services).
Eventually, users will be able to open attached Office documents using Office Web apps, although that integration isn’t expected to roll out until this fall.
The update should help HotMail keep up with the likes of Gmail and Yahoo Mail (which is the leading online email provider in the U.S. market, according to Comscore), and the ability to tie in with Windows Live services and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 will undoubtedly appeal to customers ensconced in the Microsoft universe. But as with many things, the Hotmail revamp feels more like Microsoft is playing catch-up to other Internet companies, rather than innovating new and useful features; still, for a free service, it’s hard to complain too much.