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Microsoft Hotmail Overhaul Aims to Unclutter Your E-mail, Lands This Summer

Hotmail redesign
Microsoft veteran Chris Jones couldn't have been much more direct: while Hotmail is still a major player -- the top worldwide, in fact -- the mail client is underperforming in the U.S. and is "just behind on a bunch of features" compared to its competition. And so began our briefing today on a completely revamped Hotmail, the rollout of which hits around July or August this year. What we saw was incredibly encouraging, but it's not without some nagging issues. Let's break it down by Microsoft's own self-proclaimed pillars of the revamp -- follow us after the break for impressions!

Unclutter the inbox

Jones cited Microsoft's own research in categorizing the vast majority of e-mail out there: mail from people you know, messages from social networks, solicited mail from commerce sites and spam (the latter of which can look forward to enhanced junk mail filters). The top row now lets you sift through e-mail via sections inspired by the aforementioned list: From Contacts, Social Updates, From Groups and Everything Else. There's a new Sweep function that lets you take all mail from a specific address -- all Amazon e-mails, for example -- and either immediately delete or move to a folder upon receipt. We'll admit, we're sometimes lazy when it comes to unsubscribing to newsletters, and we can definitely see the new navigation / Sweep function helping us immensely sift through the hundreds of inbox additions we get every day. Speaking of which, threaded messaging -- here dubbed "conversation view" -- is finally implemented. Hooray!

(Side note on the topic of Social Updates, a representative told us at the event that the list of observed networking sites is up to Microsoft's discretion and not user-customizable, but we were assured it'd be maintained and updated based on user feedback.)

Staying in the inbox

A major goal of the revamp, explained Group Product Manager Dick Craddock, was to avoid the mess of having to leave the e-mail tab / window for accessing many common links. The new active view should appease that. Attached photos and documents now show up in an embedded pane and will open a Silverlight-powered slideshow / open up Microsoft's Web-based Office tools, respectively. More interesting, though, is how Active View handles certain links. Flickr and Smugmug links get the same embedded slideshow feature. YouTube and Hulu URLs are given a preview thumbnail and some basic clip information, and will play in the window when prompted. And then there's one from left field: U.S. Postal Service tracking numbers will be automatically detected and the latest tracking information shown. We're bummed to see no other parcel sites (e.g. UPS, FedEx) supported yet, but we're cautiously optimistic that will get quickly remedied. Jones told us they will continue to work with other websites about Active View integration, so for now it's just a wait-and-see situation.

Sharing from the inbox

Inbox searching how now been dubbed Bing-optimized, but Microsoft's search platform has also been integrated into message composition. A side pane will open up that lets you search the Web for images, video (Hulu and YouTube), movies and showtimes, and maps / locations. Selecting any content will automatically generate pretty HTML code (thumbnails and description panes) into the body -- "beautiful e-mail...regardless of the client," the Microsoft reps explained, and then asked us to take their word on it that it'd look good on Gmail because they weren't about to bring up a competing mail client mid-presentation.

As for local content, Microsoft said attachments can now go straight into the cloud-based SkyDrive storage -- 10GB allowed free from the onset. Sets of photos would be collated into slideshows and accessed by anyone with the personalized link, and those with LiveIDs would be able to leave comments. The longevity of the images was up for discussion -- it looks like there's only a 3-month lifespan in the cloud, and following that it's up for a space-saving deletion. Jones couldn't answer our inquiry as to whether we'd be warned about the content removal, but as the kind of people who still go through years-old e-mails looking for random photos, we hope there's some wiggle room in those rules. Traditional attachments should still work, however, at the expense of your Hotmail storage cap. Attached documents can also be thrown in the cloud, updated over the Web-based Office tools and then re-sent with all the revisions stored online. It's not the most elegant collaborative solution, especially when compared to competing Google Docs, but hey, it's a step in the right direction.

Get it all on the phone

To be perfectly honest, in its current form, the updated mobile page (accessible from most modern browsers) is discouraging. It's lacking much of the aforementioned features: no sorting options, no sweeping controls, no Active View for photos or other links. The one positive we can mention here is the mobile calendar, which looks to be heading in the right direction. A representative we spoke with said they'll be continuing to update as they get closer to launch (and perhaps afterwards as well), but we don't yet know what that'll entail. Microsoft said its research showed people preferred using native mail clients, so Exchange ActiveSync is now fully supported. Whatever the justification, however, Gmail has set a pretty high bar for mobile e-mail experience, and what was shown today just isn't cutting it.

Make no mistake, Hotmail is taking quite a few good (and long overdue) steps forward. While its sorting tools are some of the more clever we've seen, it's still not quite at the level of Gmail, which Microsoft itself noted is the fastest growing online e-mail provider out there. Will it be enough to maintain its lead against Google's services, or shed its image of antiquity?

Tags: email, features, handson, hotmail, microsoft, microsoft hotmail, MicrosoftHotmail, software, top, webapps