The firm has decided to junk Hotmail for a squeaky-clean, socially tuned email service

For the better part of this week, obituaries to Hotmail poured in from around the world. Those of us who were still loyally wedded to that early email dinosaur may have been caught unawares by Microsoft’s decision to junk Hotmail (though the tech world had been buzzing for a few months now), but the squeaky-clean interface offered at the brand-new email service, Outlook.com, is more than consolation. Better integration with social media, a less intrusive email experience and several new features may just make this offering worth your while.

Having said that, the healthy dose of nostalgia surrounding the impending demise of Hotmail is not entirely unwarranted. After all, Hotmail was the first free Web-based email service; for thousands of early netizens, an ‘@hotmail.com’ was their first email identity, and MSN Messenger (that was linked to Hotmail accounts) was their introduction to instant messaging. And yes, not to forget that proud Indian connection — Hotmail was founded by Bangalore-based Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Sabeer Bhatia, who sold it to Microsoft for a cool $ 400 million in 1998.

It’s another matter that most of us ditched Hotmail for a quicker, slicker and roomier Gmail (which, back then, wooed us all with a full 1 GB, a number that back in 2004 sounded ridiculously inexhaustible or near-infinite), while others jumped to a Yahoo account for Yahoo’s chat service which offered much more than Hotmail did back then. The lure of Gmail also had to do with the fact that for years it functioned in Beta and a ‘by invite only’ mode. Also, by the time Gmail arrived, everybody knew that email IDs were going to be deeply linked to our virtual identities, and, therefore, treated it more seriously; so those who called themselves ‘cleverlywicked’ or ‘coolgirl’ on Hotmail moved on to more serious Gmail avatars.

In a time warp

Meanwhile, Hotmail appeared to be caught in a time warp till the mid-noughties. In 2007, it rebranded and re-launched as Windows Live Hotmail. Then in 2010, when other services such as Gmail and Yahoo saw a marked increase in market shares, particularly in emerging markets, it announced a major overhaul, one that attempted to create a more social version that would offer a one-stop shop for everything you want to do on the Web. It also tried to woo users by integrating better with its new Web-based Office suite, allowing viewing, editing and sharing in real time.

There are no clear statistics comparing users of different email address providers to prove if all this worked for Hotmail or not. Google, however, going by its own claims seems to lead the pack with over 460 million users globally in 2012, while Hotmail claimed in late 2011 that it had 355 million active users, and Yahoo, also in 2011, claimed around 302 million unique users globally. Then again, ComScore statistics for June 2012 revealed that Hotmail leads the pack with 324 million monthly visitors, compared to 290 million Yahoo users and 278 million Gmail-ers.

Whatever be the numbers, Microsoft appears to have noticed that Hotmail was stagnating, if not on a decline. Junking the Hotmail brand, the Redmond-based software major, in a blog, said it was time to “reimagine email” and called its offering the “modern email designed for the next billion mailboxes”.

An all-new Outlook

The all-new offering, which borrows its name or identity from Outlook (the desktop email client that came bundled with Microsoft’s operating system), appears to be built from a scratch. Unlike previous Microsoft interventions, Outlook.com is a cool new email client with an interface so clean (like the simple and easy-to-use desktop client) they’re calling it the “clutter-killer”. Word has it that it is in sync with Metro and Windows8, and offers 7GB of free cloud storage through SkyDrive (compared to Gmail’s 5GB through Google Drive).

A lot of what Outlook offers is what it already has been working on from 2010 with Hotmail, ‘bulk sweep’ for delete, better access to Microsoft’s Web office suite and so on. The focus appears to be similar to what it was in the 2010 release — that is to allow users to use one ID to link to a range of Web services without leaving the comforts of your email client. It also provides integration with several other services such as Skype from inside Outlook.com. Microsoft has also promised iOS and Android apps for Outlook in the near future.

Since the release, Microsoft bigwigs have been harping on how they’re making the inbox personal using social media interactions — by connecting the email service to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on — and on its emphasis on privacy (perceived by many as Google’s waterloo). Taking a swipe at Google, Microsoft’s Chris Jones reportedly pointed out, in an interview, that mailbox content is “intimate”, and that it is “important for people to feel like they’re in control of what and how their information is use”. The obvious allusion is to Google’s targeted ads – which use keywords scanned from email content –– that pop up every time you open an email. Outlook for now promises a cleaner interface minus the creepy sidebars. Add to this the fact that Google Drive and its cloud-based services have seen a few glitches here and there in recent weeks, and users may be enticed into this fresh new offering.

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