The New Hotmail
The statistics on Hotmail usage are staggering, making the lack of respect it receives from the digerati somewhat curious. I've had a Hotmail account for many, many years, and when Microsoft began offering live.com addresses, I signed up immediately. That said, I'm a Gmail user first and foremost, and I've preferred Google's stripped-down, web-based email interface to any of the Microsoft stuff, be it Outlook, Windows Live Mail, or the web-based Hotmail.
Despite this, I've maintained my Hotmail and Live email addresses, and I even pay annually for extra storage on the Live account, providing me with an ad-free experience that I can compare to the free version. I've always felt like Microsoft was this close to gaining the upper hand on Google in the email space, but they've never quite gotten there, in my opinion. And each time Hotmail has gotten a revision, big or small, I look, and I compare, and I wonder if this is it.
So when the software giant began revving up its marketing engine earlier this year to discuss a major update to the Hotmail service, I was naturally intrigued. And once I saw how aggressively Microsoft was going after the competition--and not just the reality of that competition, but also much of the unfounded assumptions people have around Gmail, especially--I became even more intrigued. Talk is cheap, of course. The more important bit is whether Microsoft can transform its vast experience serving email into a public-facing service that isn't just much more popular than Gmail but is also more efficient.
And to rip off what is perhaps the most overused movie line of all time, this time it's personal. While I am a Gmail user, I'm not religious about this: If something better than Gmail comes along, I'll switch. Email is too important, too much of my daily routine, to not use the service that makes the most sense for me.
My needs, of course, are not yours. But this is no different than any other product review: I'm not reviewing it for me, I'm reviewing it for you, the nebulous you, the reader, the person that is really not a single person at all but a diverse group of people, people with different needs and wants and concerns.
But email--my God, email. It's the center of my day. And there's only one way to effectively test an email service: You need to use it, really use it, and use it regularly. Use it instead of what you usually use, and see whether it can pass the test, and ... gasp ... replace Gmail.
Fortunately, my Gmail account receives hundreds of emails every single day. So it was a simple thing to configure my Live.com account to collect email from my Gmail account, open the floodgates, and see how the new Hotmail handles itself. To be clear, I've never taken this drastic of a step. In the past, for testing purposes, I've configured Hotmail to collect email from my other, much-less-frequently-used accounts so that I would have a decent collection of data with which to test. This time, however, I went all in. This is my real email, my real connection with the outside world. And yes, this did--still does, a week into it--scare me to death in some ways.
You might infer from this maneuver that I somehow feel the new Hotmail is up to the task, that I could, in fact, live in this interface, instead of Gmail, going forward. That assumption is correct. And while the actual outcome of this experiment is up in the air as I write this, it's probably not giving away anything for me to note that today, for the first time, Microsoft is offering a credible challenger to Gmail from a functional perspective. Whether these efforts are enough to put it over the top remains to be seen, and we'll get there before this review is over.
For now, however, let's step back to a high level and examine the surface changes Microsoft has made to the Hotmail user interface. Then, we'll dive in and examine the functional improvements. There's a lot going on here.