Katherine Boehret

Making Hotmail Hot Again

Like it or not, your personal email address says something about you. Gmail tends to be considered the cool email to have today. Apple’s (AAPL) .Mac addresses (now .Me) identify users who own Macs and don’t mind paying $100 a year for email and related services. AOL (AOL) emails are tied to adults who haven’t changed their address since the dial-up days. And Hotmail is seen as old school.

Since its debut in 1996, Hotmail has soared to 400 million users world-wide. But it also lost users along the way—particularly in 2008—due in part to a general perception that Hotmail wasn’t as modern as other email services.

Starting this week, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) will try to change the way Hotmail is perceived by rolling out a revamped version. The company, which bought the program in 1998, has scrapped its attempts to get people to use its site for social networking, acknowledging that companies like Facebook and Twitter are already doing the job. And it has cleaned up its once confusing nomenclature: Hotmail is the sole name for Microsoft’s Web email program.

To spread the word, Microsoft recently launched a massive marketing campaign, involving online, radio and outdoor ads running through the end of the year, that will cost the company tens of millions of dollars, according to Microsoft general manager, Brian Hall. Mr. Hall says that “The New Busy” campaign is intended to demonstrate how Hotmail’s organizational features help busy people with full lives. Part of the campaign will focus on reintroducing current Hotmail users to new features.

But should you really consider reviving your old Hotmail account or opening a new one? I’ve been using this new version of Hotmail for the past few weeks and I’ve found it handled large files with ease, performed browser-like tasks within the inbox and integrated third-party social networks and email accounts. Though the Hotmail name still conjures up frustrating memories of too much spam and the belief that storage was restricted, Microsoft has revamped its old email service into one that’s smart, robust and reliable. It deserves a second look.


The new Hotmail displays more on one screen, including photos.

Hotmail is still big on sorting emails according to your existing “Contacts” versus everyone else. This works well if you’ve taken the time to add all of your friends to the Contacts list, a procedure that takes a couple seconds per person and is done as you send emails to people. This prompting can be a bit of a pain, but if you haven’t done it, you might miss emails from people you care about. A Microsoft representative said that by the end of this summer, users will be able to opt out of this sorting.

At first glance, the new Hotmail doesn’t look dramatically different. But a closer look reveals intelligent organizational tools. Shortcut tabs at the top of the inbox display only messages from social networks (think of all those email notifications from Facebook and Twitter), pre-made email groups or contacts. Many other email programs only do this if users manually set up folders.

Another organizational tool is called Quick Views. It automatically sorts four types of emails into folders: Flagged, Photos, Office Docs and Shipping Updates. These categories come preset and cannot be customized.

Quick Views saved me from digging through my inbox for specific emails and from dragging certain emails into folders for saving. When I ordered gifts online for a friend’s wedding, the shipping notification emails from the delivery service arrived in my inbox and were also viewable in the Shipping Updates folder. Emails with attached Office documents were neatly sorted into the Office Docs folder.

Behind the scenes of the revamped Hotmail, Microsoft is powering all inboxes with Windows Live SkyDrive—an ever-growing, server-based storage repository that guarantees you’ll never be asked to clean out your inbox. (As with many Web-based email programs, Hotmail stores your emails on servers rather than taking up space on your hard drive.)

SkyDrive also gives Hotmail users more freedom when sharing photos: Images can be quickly uploaded to SkyDrive and shared with friends via a Web link. One message can include up to 200 photos of 50 megabytes each, or 10 gigabytes total. Meanwhile, Gmail limits attachments to about 25 megabytes per message.

When Word, PowerPoint or Excel documents are attached to any message received, they are opened right in the Web browser, without having to open another program. This works thanks to a program called Office Web Apps, which functions regardless of whether or not Office 2010 is installed on the computer. Just as photos are shared from Hotmail using a SkyDrive link, so, too, are Office documents.

Hotmail’s inbox now has a Sweep feature, which lets you move or delete all emails from a particular sender. (A similar option in Microsoft Office 2010 wipes out all emails sent prior to the last message in a thread.) Another option for tidying up your inbox is Conversation View, which sorts all emails sent in the same conversation into one group. Users can opt in or out of this, unlike Gmail, which offers only threaded emails.

Tough spam filters caught every Viagra-related email sent to my Hotmail address. And if you identify a piece of mail in the Junk folder that isn’t actually spam, Hotmail remembers this and sorts differently in the future.

Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, now plays a role in Hotmail. It’s built into the search box as an option for scouring Web content directly from the inbox. It can be accessed while composing a message: A small “From Bing” drop-down menu in the email you’re writing lets you search for content to add to emails, like maps, videos, images and movie show times. This content appears in a right-side panel and can be embedded in email messages with one click.

To keep people from straying away to different Web pages while using Hotmail, Web functions can be performed from right within its inbox. These functions include watching videos from YouTube or Hulu, or viewing photos from Flickr or SmugMug. I clicked on YouTube links in emails and watched videos in a handsome overlay screen. And if an email includes codes for tracking packages using the U.S. Postal Service, the package’s real-time shipping status appears within the email. A Microsoft representative confirmed that FedEx and UPS are in the works.

I added my Gmail account to my Hotmail account, so I could check several personal email messages on the same Web page. In a similar manner, Hotmail can pull multiple contacts from several networks—like phone numbers and emails from LinkedIn or birthdays from Facebook—into a single Contact list.

Hotmail may have burned you in the past, but this beefed-up new version saves you time and is a pleasure to use.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg. Email Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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