The New Hotmail
Part 4: Hotmail Smart Phone Experience
Looking back over the past year, if I had to pick just one thing that prevented me from using Hotmail, it would be that Microsoft didn't support a viable email protocol, like IMAP, making the service unusable on the most popular smart phones, like the iPhone. A few months back, I got some good news, some very good news: Microsoft was going to do me one better and actually provide support for Exchange ActiveSync instead of IMAP, allowing its service to automatically sync with mobile clients over the air. And not just email, but contacts and calendar too.
ActiveSync support is what makes Gmail so good on the iPhone, for example, and now that I've had it up and running with Hotmail for the last week, I can report that it's just as good. As with Gmail, you can selectively configure push access to email, contacts, and calendar, and if you're one of those multiple calendar people, have fun with the color coding. It's all there.
Update: Exchange ActiveSync support will go live for all Hotmail users in late August, I'm told.
Exchange ActiveSync is huge, but Hotmail also supports the mobile web much better than before, so if you'd prefer to access your email or calendar from your smart phone's web browser, you're also in for a treat. It supports new Hotmail features like filters and Quick views, and is very Gmail-like when to comes to what I call "email triaging," or my process of manually sifting through the junk so that I can focus on the most important emails when I return to the PC. Don't have a smart phone? Hotmail also supports a "light" mobile version for so-called feature phones.
Windows Live Calendar has also been updated with a powerful mobile web version, one that is so good that many mistook leaked screenshots of it for a native iPhone app. It sports Day, Week, and Month views, but aside from Month view, they're not really modeled after desktop calendar app views but rather utilize an Agenda-like layout that takes good advantage of the onscreen real estate you'll find on a typical phone.
For you million people out there with an iPad, I've had mixed results with the browser-based versions of the services. (Go figure, but Safari on the PC is 100 percent supported and works fine.) Hotmail loads the mobile version of the site, which is workable on the iPad's big screen, but Calendar for some reason tries to load the desktop version of the site, which doesn't render properly. I assume this will be worked out over time. (Windows Live Home also loads the mobile site, not the desktop site.)
Timing and availability
The new Hotmail will begin rolling out to customers around the time of the consumer release of Office 2010, June 15, because of the related release of the SkyDrive-based Office Web Apps. I don't have a firm release date per se, but my understanding is that it will occur over time and should begin by June 15.
The question here, of course, is whether the new Hotmail is good enough to cure me of my Google addiction. I'm not yet positive, but the prognosis is good, and I will continue using Hotmail, and Windows Live Contacts and Calendar, instead of the Google offerings.
The bigger issue, of course, is whether I believe Hotmail is good enough to sway others. If you're already using Hotmail, I think you'll be pleased with the changes, most of which are subtle at first, and even disabled by default in some cases. You won't experience the huge disruption that the previous Hotmail brought. So that's good news.
Gmail users are going to be a tough nut to crack, however. Gmail made webmail cool, long after it had supposedly succumbed to an AOL-like stupor, and I've found the Gmail interface to be so efficient that I hardly ever bother with desktop email applications anymore. Hotmail is close, but probably not good enough to make power users switch from Gmail. The issue is performance. It's not that Hotmail is slow per se, it's not, but Gmail is blessed with an almost uncanny speed, and it seems to download mail the second they come in, not on some set schedule.
For me, integration with various Microsoft services may just be enough to put the new Hotmail over the top, but that may not be as important for others. Previous to Exchange ActiveSync support, of course, Hotmail was a complete non-starter, so that capability alone makes Hotmail suddenly interesting again. I've been waiting to see how Windows Live wave 4 integrates a number of currently disjointed services, and while we still have a bit of a wait on that, it's coming, and my understanding is that the news is going to be positive.
For a Microsoft guy like myself, deep integration across Microsoft's various consumer-oriented services has been a dream of sorts, but with the new Hotmail it's getting much closer to reality. I'll need to wait on the rest of the wave 4 stuff before I can be sure. But for now--and believe me, I never thought I'd be saying this again--I'm using Hotmail. I guess anything is possible.