Email is the oldest networked application, and the most personal. For many people, it has supplanted the phone and post as their major channel for social and business use. It's not something they take lightly — and when it goes away, it's missed more than anything else.
That's one reason people are quick to complain about technical problems that affect their mailboxes, and why we get to hear about such issues more often than any other. This year the stand-out email provider of angst has been Hotmail, which has generated large numbers of complaints concerning long-standing problems it seems incapable of resolving.
We know that any service with millions of users will have a constant low level of problems to fix. However, we don't see the same level of complaints from other Web mail providers: the rest of our email-related traffic is a steady stream of people asking for Gmail accounts and the odd spot of trouble with Yahoo and AOL. Hotmail has a problem, and Microsoft's denials haven't made it go away.
In our news story on this, a consultant recommends that people move their email to the service provided by their ISPs on the sensible grounds that a commercial relationship gives the provider stronger motivation to fix problems. It's hard to argue against that, and the implications should give Microsoft occasion for worry.
It is easy to suppose that Microsoft isn't giving Hotmail as much attention as it might, and just isn't that bothered about investing in its continued success — especially with Windows Live coming up with its Web-based email service. Yet Hotmail is more than just an email service, it's a constant advertisement for how well Microsoft can run such endeavours. If people aren't satisfied with how well it's running, they're not going to go to another Microsoft-hosted email system instead. They'll go elsewhere, and they'll be resistant to whatever else might be sold to them as an online service under the same banner.
Unreliability can poison any product, but in the low inertia, high churn world of online services it can very quickly become fatally toxic. Microsoft must get the message: unreliable email is not an option.