As stated earlier, my Hotmail account has been upgraded to the beta version, internally known as Dogfood. Been a former Microsoft MSN MVP I just could not help but be excited about this new release, even though I had not touched my Hotmail account for at least 3 years. After the introduction of the Live family, I was pretty disgusted about the Kahuna project. Hotmail took after the Outlook 2003 interface and then was given a complete facelift that clearly lacked the coherence in terms of design. Now that the team seems to have push a better product, it review time.
Unlike Yahoo! Mail, the application feels light and solid. Don’t get me wrong the Yahoo! Mail team has done great work optimizing the speed of their webmail but as Blake Irving, formerly in charge of Windows Live and who now works at Yahoo!, recently said : "it's not the best-class client when it comes to performance". The new Hotmail returns a good balance by displaying a Gmail-like interface, making use of DHTML rather than heavy Ajax, and a more polish UI that Google’s webmail that's will please over 400 million users.
Indeed, though not drastically different from the current version, this new Hotmail does present some UI tweaks. Some people at List Apart would rather speak about re-alignment rather than redesign. In some way this is pretty good and does not force users to adapt themselves to a new interface. In fact this new one takes after the Windows Live Client and replicates some of its features such as collapsible folders. The interface looks fit and finish and this is a pretty big thing for Hotmail. I remember seeing some non-stylized dark blue links sitting along a light blue gradient. Aesthetically speaking, It made no sense. It seems that the Live Team was now able to fully embrace themselves in the design process to offer something rather pretty and in full coherence with the Windows Live Mail client.
Hotmail, as you may know, offers a bunch of themes. Some new ones are introduced in Wave 4. However, you might have guessed that I'm the kind of guy who likes consistency. I'd rather have a unified background rather than seeing weird cartoon characters doing weird stuff, and when it comes to those, simple colors, well... the choice is rather limited. You got the default light blue background, a green one, an orange one and a pink one. That's not much and I believe the Live team should really offer more options here. Email being personal, I usually can't help myself customizing my inbox. In this sense I rarely use the default colors, should it be in Yahoo! Mail or Gmail. Now, I have to say, the default blue top ribbon actually looks great... I just don’t like the fact that it comes by default :)
Oddly enough Hotmail was able to surprise me and I like that. The new Hotmail relies on the "less is more" idea. The minimalist interface nonetheless offers many features. Some of them, however, might already have existed before but I'm just discovering them. This might be the case of the advanced search section. On the far right of the internal search engine, you'll find a simple icon displaying a couple of arrows pointing downwards. It's rather discrete but properly placed. Clicking on the icon will reveal advanced search options similar to those you find in Gmail. Speaking of search, this is certainly one of Gmail’s killer features and one that places Yahoo far behind. Indeed, it seems Yahoo! Mail is making way too much use of Ajax and it looks like the built-in search engine is having a hard time indexing messages. Well the search engine in this new Hotmail is extremely responsive. The auto-complete feature is coupled with suggestions. For a given keyword you’ll instantly be suggested to complete your query with prefixes like from:keyword, subject:keyword or to:keyword… it’s just really fast.
Another surprise was discovered when right clicking on an email in the middle column listing all the messages. In the contextual menu, you will be first presented options to manage this email. You'll also find a link to expand this menu and discover options related to the sender of the message. You'll be able to create rules on the fly or perform an automatic search to retrieve all messages sent by this person.
One the most promoted features certainly is the Sweep action. Again it enables you to create rules on the fly for selected messages. It clearly does what it is meant for. Once though I ran into a problem and received a message stating that a rule could not be created because the email address was too long. Other than that it works pretty well.
Here I just want to copy and paste part of a previous entry that I wrote: When composing an email with a customized from-line (my personal domain) in Chrome or Safari, I would get a message telling me that “The sender’s email address appears to be invalid”. Well this problem is gone. Also when composing a long email, the draft feature would often “fail to connect to the Hotmail servers”. Again, this has been solved in this new release. Finally, the webmessenger used to show up only in IE or Firefox, well, it is now available in Webkit-based browsers. There is not much to add here but maybe mention that the Live team has geared Hotmail toward the coming Internet Explorer 9 which should support several HTML5 features. Great news!
The Windows Live team have unveiled a new address book in which information can be populated with Facebook data. This actually works pretty well. For example the address book will add geographical information or website URLs for a given contact. After associating your Facebook graph you might have many double entries but the contact cleaner tool works also very smoothly. What I do not really like is the way the address book is presented. It is not tightly integrated into Hotmail the way Yahoo’s address book is to Yahoo! Mail. It rather looks like an independent service. Also it only offers one view. I, for example, would rather have a minimal view and choose to hide contact photos. The result is 14 pages of contacts… not really convenient but the internal search engine very well. On this subject, the Live team has recentely written a blog entry.
Not much to say about the Calendar as it does not seem to be radically different from the previous one. Let’s just say that with the coming ActiveSync feature you’ll be able to synchronize it with your phone. For a short period I was able to actually play with ActiveSync through the RoadSync client on my Android phone. A new calendar event was sync’ed instantly. Really nice!
See, I’m a geek. Not sure what kind of geek, but I have to make the most of such services. In Gmail I really like the fact that you can build your own internal shortcuts based on search queries. I use them to quickly find messages that contain photos, documents or files. The Windows Live team has introduced a similar feature with the Quick Views links that are displayed below your personal folders. By default you get four links (photos, documents, flagged and shipping updates). This is rather cool but I expected to be able to actually edit or created such internal shortcuts. Being French, I do not really care for shipping updates based on an American company. It’s no surprise that the French version of Dogfood removes this link. Yet I like to have an English interface for products that I use. As an example I’d like to create a link for all email containing certain types of files like all those small applications for Windows and Mac that I backup. Also, it would have been nice if the Hotmail team had actually organized all my received photos into a gallery the same way Xoopit used to do with Gmail and Yahoo!
Another limit that I have encountered lies in the filter system. I still am not able to manually create a filter that will block messages that have Asian characters in the subject field. I don’t know anyone in Asia or anyone that will send me an email with Asian characters. My Gmail address is forwarded to my Hotmail account and this Gmail address is the target of many spams sent from China. From time to time neither Gmail nor Hotmail are able to catch those spams.
I'll probably extend on that in another article but I believe technologies should make people's life easier. I also believe that deep inside of them, all geeks want to have a homogeneous experience across every product. Talk about synchronization to a geek and he will be thrilled to explain how this works and will probably mention the super cool Dropbox software. The geek wants to see the exact same thing on all machines. Coherence and homogeneity are key points, at least for me.
Google offer such a coherence across their products ; among many things else they're for example adding synchronization upon the Chrome browser. Yahoo used to have a homogeneous PIM but certainly does not anymore. Microsoft used to have a divided strategy (MSN/Live) but things are getting much clearer. Your Windows Live ID will be usable not only on the Live portal but across the Windows and Windows Live software which are actually pretty good and would satisfy most of your needs, but also on the Xbox with messenger for example, on the Zune Market and soon on Windows Phones.
Hotmail integrates Skydrive which is simply genius for joint files and much better integrated than say Zumodrive on Yahoo Mail. Some people find Office Web Apps too limited, well, it suits my needs and render documents properly enough for me. Google Documents might offer more options (not sure about that) but I never used nor will I ever use them... Let's be realistic for a second before playing the nerdy geek... Finally Hotmail will soon offer ActiveSync, the mobile version of Exchange, that will work on any compatible smartphones. This is pretty huge especially on the iPhone where Apple makes you pay nearly a 100 bucks for that. And if you want to take things further in terms of coherence, well you get Exchange-like synchronization on Windows Live Mail and Outlook via the Connector.
There are two problems related to the brand : Microsoft and Hotmail. Back in 2007 I was utterly bored with XP. Vista was horrible. I had been playing with Linux Ubuntu for a few months and then I got my first MacBook Pro. During the Windows 7 buzz I made fun of my colleagues for pre ordering the OS online. I swore I'd never used it. But then I had the opportunity to get a couple of Ultimate licenses for free so I installed the OS on my new work machine which came pre-loaded with... XP again dammit! I was really surprised by Windows 7. Some say it's just a skin put above Vista. It probably is but nevertheless acts much more smoothly and well... well it works! It seems to me Microsoft is doing the right stuff right now : Windows 7, Internet Explorer 9, boosted Hotmail, opening the Outlook PST files, developing for JQuery... I've always tried to remain objective and I regularly switch between Windows, Mac OS X and Ubuntu. It allows me to test every new stuff and ... well, working as a tech journalist... at least I want to know what I'm talking about ! I believe we have reached the point where Google is not the super nice and super friendly company which wants to defy the giant Microsoft. At least I do not remember Microsoft being caught in so many case related to user privacy, and believe I’m really not paranoid about that, again, let’s be objective here.
Hotmail also has a brand problem and Microsoft knows that pretty well. It’s not surprising they're targeting the over hyped Gmail on their promotional website. Here again I try to remain objective. With a set of filters and redirections I have all my emails in synchronization between Gmail, Google Apps, Yahoo! Mail and now Hotmail. I also customize all from-lines with my personal domain. I hear people say that @hotmail.com or @live.com does not look professional and is associated with being a noob. Seriously WTF? Do you really think that @gmail.com looks more professional? If that bothers you get a $6 custom domain to create something like firstname.lastname@example.org and set it up everywhere and you're done! Anyway I hope people will be smart enough to remain objective and give the new Hotmail a try cause in terms of features Gmail is not a winner here. I'd say the new Hotmail is least as good as Gmail but is also done in a way that suits 400 million people. Cause seriously, how many people in your family knows how to create a shortcut in Gmail based on a Boolean query? In one of the promotional videos over at windowslivepreview.com, some Hotmail guy says: " we don't treat hundreds millions of people as testers". This invites you to add "unlike Google with their 5-year beta". Granted, it took time for Hotmail to reach those capabilities but hey, it's all there now! Rant's over!
So there you have my impression on the new Hotmail. Overall it’s rather positive and if you are a Windows user it will just make sense to use it. I should note that I like the fact Hotmail is given “real” new features, unlike Yahoo! Mail which has been trying to leverage the social side of its webmail for a couple years now. I don’t care much for social services myself. In fact I deleted everything on my Facebook Wall and never update it. As for Gmail, well it’s a good service as well but not necessarily more powerful than the new Hotmail. Gmail wins by displaying text ads which are probably less intrusive. I actually subscribed to Hotmail Pro ($19/y) which removes the right end banner. Some say it’s insane to pay for email, well, I do a lot of email everyday. $19 ? Well OK once in a year I will refrain from going to McDonald’s and stay home… Is that a big deal ? Not for me… but then some may think it’s not worth it and would rather eat those hamburgers and see ads in their webmail all year long. I don’t judge them. Hopefully this review has helped you decide moving over to Hotmail or not. Most importantly, I hope you’ll give it a try and make your own opinion.