In praise of Hotmail

The service, which has suddenly morphed into, wasn't nearly as terrible as its reputation suggested - for me, at least.

Last week my Hotmail went down — for a few hours, I was unable to see my messages due to some kind of log-in problem. It turned out to be a me-specific problem, but in order to establish that I asked around Twitter, to see if any other Hotmail users had been affected.

I knew what sort of response that would get, and I certainly got it. "You still use Hotmail?! LOL!!!" is a fair paraphrasing. It's as if I'd confessed to churning my own butter, or brushing my teeth with bark. Why the heck would anyone use Hotmail in this day and age?

But I did (and I do, only now it's called ). There are several reasons for my continued usage, and I'm sure many people use it for the same reasons — although they are probably as wary of admitting it as I was.

First off, I've had my Hotmail address for around 15 years — if it were a person, it would be able to have kids by now. I got it when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town. It was my first webmail address, certainly, and quite possibly my first email address at all (I may have briefly had an address as part of my computer science lessons at school — I can't recall).

Old Hotmail
If Hotmail were a person, it would be old enough to have kids now. Image credit: CNET News

Even in those early days, within months of Microsoft's acquisition of Hotmail, I struggled to find a vacant username that was relevant to me. Based on the name of my band at the time, I settled on 'superglaze', which lives on as my Twitter handle (and occasionally confuses people who mistake me for someone in the glass business). It was a bit contrived, but over the years I came to realise it was quite digestible, certainly compared to the lengthy strings that came to pass for webmail addresses.

From that early stage, I used my Hotmail address for signing up to newsletters and a variety of web services. As Hotmail was at the time not very good at dealing with spam, I thought I may as well throw the bacn mail (I still love that term) in there, given that nothing important was likely to be lost in the morass.

It didn't take very long for me to discover how cheap and easy it is to set up your own domain, so the Hotmail address ceased to be my primary address quite quickly. These days I mainly use Google Apps, and overall I have more addresses than I need or want.

As of yesterday, an address is also on that list, and my Hotmail address is more-or-less gone in the switch. It still works in the sense that people can mail it and I'll get the email in my account, but I can't send from it anymore. Not that I actually sent anything from that address in the last few years.

Not as bad as all that

But, while my Hotmail account had become something akin to a dirty secret, here's a confession: it was actually really good. Those who understandably fled Hotmail years ago may not be aware that, in the last year or two, it got really, really good at catching spam. As in, maybe even better than Gmail, and certainly better than the execrable Yahoo. If it was junk, it ended up in the junk folder.

What's more, I found the interface clean — not as clean as Gmail's, for sure, but I have always been confused by those who say the ads were so intrusive that they covered the text of the email. In fact, I don't even recall seeing any ads on Hotmail. Maybe I was being rewarded for being an early adopter? I have no idea. All I know is that Hotmail gave me a pretty great experience, especially for something I was supposed to be ashamed of using.

But, of course, perception is everything. When I tweeted about my own little outage, one person replied that they had turned down job applications on the basis that they were sent from a Hotmail address. That's quite harsh, but understandable in a way.

We live in an internet culture where individuality is supposedly celebrated, but where the tyranny of brand reputation is ruthlessly enforced on a collective basis. You use an iPhone? You're a snob. Hotmail? Ignoramus who's scared of change. AOL? Well, actually, there may be a point there…

I won't pretend that I'm immune. '@hotmail' may have been embarrassing, but '' comes with its own, far more corporate, whiff. I'd go so far as to say it's about as with-it as 'BlackBerry'. But that's OK. I'll only be using it for bacn anyway. And I'm hoping that the spam email that got into the main folder (for an address I set up less than 24 hours ago!) was merely an early-days anomaly.

So, here's to Hotmail. It was a much better service than its reputation suggested, and I mourn its passing, at least a little.