Microsoft appears to have pulled out of its hat an upgrade

Is your email inbox a virtual mall — a one-stop shop for all your web needs and operations? Going by the latest upgrades rolled out by Microsoft for its free email client Hotmail, and Google's attempts to steal its thunder by providing API that allows third-party applications to integrate with Gmail, the focus has shifted from storage and in-built messengers to making your inbox the centre of your web universe.

So earlier this week, Hotmail — that old email client that introduced many of us to the world of instant communication — got a makeover. Years after the email client with a proud Indian connection (courtesy, founder Sabeer Bhatia) gave way to younger, roomier and feature-rich email client Gmail, Microsoft appears to have pulled out of its hat an upgrade that is in keeping with the times.

Though Yahoo! improved its client and messenger with successful iterations and Gmail consistently offered exciting tools/features through its Gmail labs (on a near-weekly basis), Hotmail was perceived as being caught in a time warp. Hotmail's last upgrade was about two years ago — this is no less than a light year in Internet time. Not surprisingly, in India, Hotmail retains a market share of just over nine per cent. This, when Gmail and Yahoo! are pegged at around 56.7 and 56.1 per cent (does not add up because people generally use multiple IDs), the March 2010 Comscore statistics reveal. While in foreign or “mature” email markets, where Hotmail is still the leader, this upgrade must be about retaining or beating the market share of rival services, in India the task at hand is a daunting one.

So can a cooler , or ‘hotter' if you may, Hotmail win over email users? Is its latest roll-out good enough to get email users to disengage from the existing IDs, particularly now when email IDs have become inextricably linked with the way we ‘keep in touch'? Rathin Lahiri, Director Online, Microsoft Consumer and Online Business, believes that this upgrade may do the trick. Integration with other email accounts (including rivals Google and Yahoo!) and social networks, larger attachment capacity and enhanced spam recognition are key upgrades, he says.

Of the many new features (many of them already on offer in Gmail and Yahoomail), the most unique is the uncluttered email experience: better conversation views (by threading email) and one-click sweep to delete or move emails to other folders. It allows you to preview photos, view slideshows and even videos from third-party applications, all from the comfort of your inbox.

The upper-limit on attachment size offered herein is an unparalleled 10 GB. Photos and videos too can be shared through Microsoft's cloud-based SkyDrive, Mr. Lahiri explains. Significantly, the new Hotmail offers better integration with its new web-based Office suite, allowing users to view, edit and share documents in real time.

Live messenger

The upgrades have not stopped with Hotmail, Mr. Lahiri informs. Demoing an improved messenger service, he points out that it brings Video Chat in High Definition for a fully loaded experience. It allows users to share photos from SkyDrive and Facebook in real time, share and update status across social networks with a single click. An interesting feature, one that is indeed novel, is the ability to set availability status by category — that is, while I can appear active to friends, I can appear offline to co-workers, or appear ‘busy' to my boss!