Microsoft combats spam to put Hotmail back on track

Hotmail has seen the second part of a revamp that brings features such as one-click actions and multi-level folder support to the web service for the first time

Microsoft has unveiled a new look for its Hotmail web mail service, bringing new features, an Android app and revamped anti-spam controls.

Hotmail revamp

Microsoft has rolled out the second part of a revamp to Hotmail, allowing people to create categories for mail. Image credit: Microsoft

The changes, announced on Monday, make up the second stage of a three-part overhaul of Hotmail. They are part of Microsoft's mission to attract people back to the service, which has gained a reputation as being a haven for spam.

"Back in the day, Hotmail was the number one. But we lost our way a little bit," Mark West, Microsoft product marketing manager for Windows Live, told ZDNet UK.

"Gmail came on board, and suddenly we were getting things like storage all wrong, and not really focusing on users as much as we should, piping quite a few advertisements into Hotmail and not putting good enough controls around spam," he said.

In 2006, around one-third of Hotmail messages were spam, he noted. To remedy this, Microsoft has rebuilt the front and back-end of the service. As a result, only around three percent of emails are now junk mail, according to West.

"We really are focusing heavily on making the fundamentals — the non-glamorous stuff like spam protection, privacy, security and performance — are all best in class," he said.

New features

In the new Hotmail update, Microsoft has made changes to its Sweep feature, which allows people to move messages in bulk from one mailbox to another, based on preset criteria. The tool now lets people schedule clean-ups, so they can mass-delete messages.

In addition, users can now choose between keeping messages received within a time frame — for example, two months — or holding on to only the last message from a specific sender. These tweaks lend themselves to tidying up newsletters and other scheduled mailings in the inbox, according to Microsoft.

Back in the day, Hotmail was the number one. But we lost our way a little bit.

– Mark West, Microsoft

There is also a new option that lets people create categories for messages and assign mail to multiple categories in one action. This is similar to the way Gmail uses labels, but unlike Gmail, Hotmail retains its classic folder options.

Certain Hotmail actions have been streamlined. For example, creating new folders or sub-folders can be done in one place, without the need to leave the screen to go to a dedicated options page. In addition, multi-level folders are supported for the first time.

Microsoft has also changed the flag system in Hotmail, ensuring that flagged messages always remain displayed at the top of the inbox, similar to the Priority Inbox feature in Gmail.

It has also added an Instant Actions bar, which can float over the message or be fixed, depending on preference. It provides a list of actions to perform on the message, such as delete, flag or use the Sweep feature.

Ten times faster

"If you look at the speed of Hotmail today versus a year ago, we're 10 times faster for lots of common tasks such as composing an email and navigating the inbox," West said.

Photos sent via Hotmail will be automatically uploaded into a temporary folder on the user's SkyDrive storage. The recipient gets a URL with a link to each of the pictures. This means they can download the ones they want and avoids clogging up their inboxes with large numbers of attachments, Microsoft said. A 25MB limit applies to attachments sent with an email.

As well as delivering a revamped feature set to the web mail service, Microsoft also launched an Android app which features multi-account support, calendar and contact sync to a handset and the option to show images in messages in-line.

The third wave of updates will be coming to the service in "early 2012", West said.

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