Microsoft Tightens the Hotmail Screws

MSN Extra Storage offers subscription-based services that Hotmail users used to get for free

My wife isn't a technical person, and having observed the way she interacts with the computer, I'm beginning to wonder whether her way of life isn't saner than the one I've chosen. She uses MSN Hotmail as her primary email service, a fact that should set off warning signals in any tech-savvy person's mind. But my wife is able to use Hotmail successfully because she doesn't sweat the small stuff, such as the ever-decreasing set of capabilities that Microsoft offers Hotmail users for free. About 6 months ago, when it became obvious that keeping her Hotmail Inbox below Microsoft's free storage limit was going to be difficult, she reviewed the options and decided to pay for MSN Extra Storage.

Extra Storage, in case you're not familiar with the service, was beta tested as Hotmail Plus and first revealed publicly in .NET UPDATE last year. The service costs $19.95 a year (when my wife signed up, an early-adopter rate of only $12.95 existed), and its original benefit was that it provided as much as 10MB of extra server-based storage for email and attachments—far more than the 2MB of space that users with the basic service got for free. When it first debuted last October, Extra Storage offered one other benefit: It let users work with attachments as large as 1.5MB, as compared with the basic service's free 1MB attachment limit.

The attachment feature suggests that the name Extra Storage isn't as descriptive as, say, Hotmail Plus might have been, because the service adds more value than simply providing more storage space. And since last October, Microsoft has been tightening its grip on free Hotmail accounts even more, paring down the free version's capabilities and making it harder for users to forgo signing on to the subscription-based Extra Storage service.

First, Microsoft gave notice that Hotmail users who didn't access their account within a 30-day period would lose the account, along with any associated email, attachments, and contact information. Carrying out this restriction has helped Microsoft more accurately gauge how much server and software resources it needs to dedicate to Hotmail, which currently services over 230 million people. The decision didn't sit well with people who infrequently access email, of course (although I don't think that asking people to occasionally access their account is unreasonable—Netscape and Yahoo! have similar policies with their free email services). Users who opt for Extra Storage don't need to worry about their accounts being deleted if they access them infrequently. That freedom is another benefit of the service.

Then, in early June, Microsoft shut down a service that lets users automatically forward non-Hotmail email to their Hotmail email accounts, letting users check mail from a Web browser—a nice feature for vacationers and others who can't access their PC temporarily. Originally, Extra Storage users were to receive email forwarding as part of the service. However, after some bad press and complaints from angry users, Microsoft has returned the email forwarding service to free Hotmail account holders, at least for now.

Just last week, Microsoft offered users another incentive to choose Extra Storage. Noting that summer vacations often make it difficult to keep up with email, Microsoft wrote its Hotmail subscribers suggesting that they opt for Extra Storage because the company will freeze the accounts of users who exceed the 2MB storage limit and randomly delete email until the account Inbox takes up less than 2MB of space. Yes, you read that right: randomly delete. "Don't let your \[Hotmail\] account go over the 2MB storage limit," the company wrote. "Inboxes have a way of filling up fast, so be sure to check every so often and delete unwanted or large messages. If you don't, the Hotmail Janitor will randomly delete messages until your account is reduced to 2MB."

Sounds a bit like extortion, doesn't it? In fact, something I dislike about Microsoft's Extra Storage marketing effort is that the company almost always relies on scare tactics having to do with lost email. Such a strategy is not the way to garner customer trust, which is crucial when you're dealing with mission-critical data such as email. Microsoft has a right to charge for features it feels warrant a charge, but rather than strong-arm its customers into paying for advanced features, the company would do better to explain why those customers shouldn't dump Hotmail for the competition.

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