Microsoft announced updates to Windows Live Hotmail on May 18, emphasizing a variety of new clutter-elimination and security tools at a time when the company finds itself in ever-increasing competition against Google and Yahoo in the online-applications arena. Of particular note is how Hotmail now leverages a Windows Live account to provide not only contacts from the e-mail service, but also Windows Live Messenger, Facebook and MySpace-in turn suggestive of a larger Web trend that makes social networking a vital component of seemingly every possible service.
The new Hotmail also emphasizes a mobile component, with e-mail synchronization between a smartphone and the Web. Research In Motion, Nokia and other partners are apparently building custom Hotmail apps for their respective devices.
The announcement comes a few weeks after Microsoft's April 29 unveiling of the new version of Windows Live Messenger, which also bundles a variety of social-networking services into the user's message stream. This seems in keeping with the Web-communication trends of the past few months, with various companies lassoing outside applications into their existing services in a bid to make the latter more "sticky."
Yahoo, for example, added a feature in August 2009 that pulled in results from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and FriendFeed; its road map involves grafting more services onto its branded e-mail and messaging services. Over that same time period, Google has made steady updates to core properties such as Gmail.
In a similar vein, Hotmail will incorporate the unified contacts list from Windows Live services-"the address book that integrates all your contacts from Hotmail, Messenger and also from other networks (such as Facebook and MySpace)," according to Microsoft-in order to consolidate online connections into a single space. Hotmail also links into Windows Live Skydrive, allowing users to send-via link-up to 200 photos of up to 50MB in size, each, for a total of 10 gigabytes of vacation snapshots in a single message. Be sure that whomever receives that particular e-mail really, really likes you.
The new Hotmail features also include "Microsoft SmartScreen," which attempts to distinguish between legitimate e-mail and spam; Individual Preference Auto-Learning, which tries to use individual behavior to help differentiate in a more refined way between spam and valued e-mail; and Trusted Senders, which places a small logo next to e-mails that Hotmail considers legitimate as opposed to scams.
In the name of eliminating clutter, the new Hotmail offers one-click filters to show, say, only those that are unread, or from social networks such as Facebook. InBox Search Auto-Complete will suggest possible searches in response to typing letters into the search box; Conversation View displays a long e-mail chain in a single page; View All From Sender displays previous e-mails from that person.
Hotmail is being optimized for touch and rich browsers, for easy access on smartphones; in addition, the Hotmail inbox supports filters, in-line message previews, HTML messages, offline e-mail viewing, conversation threading, the ability to flag messages, and the option to turn header details on or off.
Besides Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft has also devoted resources to a redesign of its MSN brand. On May 13, the company launched a redesign of MSN Mobile, with aesthetics mimicking the revamped MSN homepage launched in March. All that revamping suggests, if nothing else, that Microsoft is taking its online properties very seriously; whether that allows it to triumph over Google and Yahoo, which are building out their own products with notable aggression, is an open question.