By ASHLEE VANCE
The retooled Hotmail will filter messages into four buckets — mail from people you know, mail from social networks, personal business and spam.
At this point, Microsoft must have developed its own seminar for employees called something like Apologizing With Optimism: How to Persuade People to Give You Another Try.
According to comScore and Microsoft’s estimates, Hotmail ranks as the top Web e-mail service worldwide with more than 360 million people using it. Yahoo trails with just north of 200 million people and Google follows with fewer than 200 million.
Of course, Hotmail suffers in the United States from a bit of a “perception problem,” as the Microsoft vice president Chris Jones put it. People perceive that Hotmail is plagued by spam, has underwhelming storage, is missing a lot of features and is basically yesteryear’s e-mail service.
“This is partially because Hotmail has been around for a while,” Mr. Jones said, celebrating Hotmail as the first Web e-mail service to hit it really big. “Of late, Gmail has been first with a big inbox, the first with IMAP and because of those firsts, it has good buzz going with it.”
More to the point, Mr. Jones admitted that, “There were features people expected to have in e-mail that we haven’t had.”
That’s the humbling apology.
The promise of a greater future — one which will have us all siphoning e-mail out of AOL, Yahoo and Gmail accounts — revolves around Microsoft’s realization of “how different e-mail is these days,” Mr. Jones said.
Gone are those dark ages when you just swapped messages with co-workers and college chums. Everyone has e-mail and that means a flood of photos, documents, status updates, spam and shopping messages pouring into your personal inbox.
Rather sadly, Microsoft has discovered that about 20 percent of all e-mail messages today consist of status updates from social networking sites. And so, “My dog is a pumpkin — yes!” and “Andy has been elected mayor of Krispy Kreme and 24 Hour Fitness” is officially the new spam.
This summer, Microsoft will roll out a retooled Hotmail that filters messages into four buckets — mail from people you know, mail from social networks, personal business and spam. So, with a quick glance, you’ll be able to gauge which messages are most important to you — likely those from people you know — and act on them first. You can also click a button to hide unwanted stuff.
“No e-mail service has really treated the mail messages differently based on who sent them,” Mr. Jones said.
Microsoft will add some new tools for viewing bulkier content like photos and documents as well. For one, it will let you flip through e-mailed photos in a slide show within Hotmail rather than forcing you to travel off to another Web site or choose whether to save or view photos.
In addition, you can have photos stored in your Windows Live account and then just send links of photos in e-mails. If your friends click on a thumbnail, the actual photo will download from your Live account. Microsoft hopes this method of delivery lets people avoid sending a ton of bulky photo files to their friends and running into e-mail size limits.
As expected, Microsoft has managed to copy its peers as well with things like conversation threads, unsubscribing to newsletters and SSL support. On the threading front, Microsoft claims an edge over the competition by offering choice.
“People either love it or hate it, so we let you turn it on and off,” Mr. Jones said.
A father of young children, Mr. Jones monitors school e-mail lists to try and get a sense of what services average folk use for their personal messages these days. This anecdotal research has him convinced that people have varied tastes in the services and that there’s plenty of room for Hotmail to grow, particularly if it can pluck people away from a vulnerable AOL or cable company accounts.
The rather clear overall message was that Microsoft is hip and with it when it comes to e-mail, not overrun by spam, and a provider of large inboxes and a place where social networks commingle with online document storage in some sort of blissfully productive and yet playful consumer/worker paradise.
Or something like that.
It seems that one product after another — Windows 7, Windows Phone 7, Bing and now a revamped Hotmail, due this summer — arrive with Microsoft admitting it could have done more with previous versions of its software, while promising people that things really are better this time around — honest. In fact, things are so good with Microsoft’s latest X that you’ll be willing to dump your beloved Y.