After more than two years in development and testing by some 20 million beta testers globally, Microsoft will launch Windows Live Hotmail, the successor to MSN Hotmail, in 36 languages across the world May 7.
Windows Live Hotmail customers will also, later this month, be able to access their Hotmail e-mail and contacts for free, using Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2007, via the new Microsoft Office Outlook Connector beta that will be made available in 11 languages worldwide.
There will also be full contact, e-mail and e-mail folder synchronization between the two products.
In addition, Microsoft will introduce another e-mail client option for Windows Live Hotmail in coming weeks, known as Windows Live Mail beta.
This will be a free consumer e-mail client, and the successor to Outlook Express and Windows Mail on Windows Vista.
Windows Live is Microsofts attempt to provide customers with a set of personal Internet services and software designed to bring together, in one place, all the relationships, information and interests people care about most.
"This is the most significant upgrade to Hotmail since its introduction in 1996 and represents an enormous improvement over the previous MSN Hotmail offering," Kevin Doerr, general manager for Windows Live, told eWEEK in an interview.
"Windows Live Hotmail will deliver a safer, more powerful and productive e-mail experience than previous versions, with flexible access via the Web, on a mobile phone or with an e-mail client," Doerr said.
The beta testing process for the product involved 10 milestones of between two and three months, each of which involved a code ship and a period of tester feedback, followed by the evaluation and incorporation of that feedback into the product.
"This was a new model for us, and we were really pleased by the constant stream of feedback this process generated for us," he said.
As such, the team has decided to keep the product in beta beyond full release, where a percentage of the user base is, essentially, in perpetual beta. "This is a very good notion for a service. What the number is, I dont know. The distribution and the number have to be appropriately scaled and reflect the audience," Doerr said.
"So, while we are coming out of beta on May 7, work has already started on the next version," he said. "So a group of people will get the next build in another month or so, with new features and improved quality and performance, but which is not production quality. This is a direction in which we are headed with a lot of our products."
While Windows Live Hotmail has a new look and feel to it, the development team, responding to feedback from beta testers, decided to offer users two ways in which to view the product: the classic version, which looks similar to MSN Hotmail, and the full version, which is richer, has advanced functionality and works more like Outlook.
"With 280 million customers, one product simply does not fit all. We believe that two is the right number. One is super-rich and for people who have the necessary bandwidth and processing power and want a more clientlike experience, and a second, which is closer to the old experience," Doerr said.
The hope is that, by offering both versions, the needs of as many customers as possible will be met. The classic version is geared toward customers who like the way the old MSN Hotmail looks and want a basic e-mail client without all the "bells and whistles," Windows Live Hotmail Program Manager Ellie Powers-Boyle told eWEEK.
The full version is geared toward those who want additional features and functionality, and includes right-click and drag-and-drop capabilities, preview pane customization, and auto-complete addressing, she said.