In recent years, rivals Google and Yahoo have been ahead of the email game while Microsoft's Hotmail has come to be perceived as a technology laggard, something Microsoft hopes to change with its upcoming email update.
An email full of photos in the updated Hotmail (Credit: Microsoft)
A key feature in the coming update to Windows Live Hotmail is an improved ability to share photos and Office documents using a combination of web-based editing tools and cloud file storage. The new version, which will begin being offered to most users in July or August, aims to offer a better alternative to the standard attachment.
Instead, Hotmail will offer the option of uploading a file or photo to Microsoft's SkyDrive service and emailing a link, as opposed to the file itself. The approach has several advantages, including avoiding issues related to file size limits that often make it hard to share videos, presentations or large collections of photos. Recipients can then either download the files, or, in the case of photos, view an online slideshow.
The new version also allows users to view photos or videos from third-party services, such as Flickr, SmugMug, Hulu and YouTube, all without having to leave Hotmail. The revamped Hotmail also adds a new "sweep" option that lets users easily divert mail from a particular sender into either a new folder or into the trash.
"This update I think is the most significant one we've ever done," Microsoft corporate vice president Chris Jones said at a briefing in San Francisco. At a minimum, it's at least the biggest move for Microsoft since it completely revamped Hotmail four years ago.
On the mobile side, Microsoft will start using Exchange ActiveSync to allow Windows Live email, calendar and contacts to be pushed onto mobile phones. To use both Hotmail and a corporate Exchange account, users will need a phone that supports dual ActiveSync connections. Today, the Palm Pre is one of the few devices that does so, but Jones said that Windows Phone 7 supports the feature, as does iPhone OS 4.
Microsoft general manager Brian Hall had suggested that many of these features are coming in a recent interview with ZDNet Australia's sister site CNET.
In addition to letting users create their own email filters, the new Hotmail also creates some views of its own, such as creating a separate view for shipping notifications and another for social-network updates, which now make up a significant number of all email messages.
The software maker will also add the option for users to send their email using an encrypted HTTPS connection. In January, Google made a secure net connection the default following a cyber attack on its mail service.
Two features that won't be part of the summer upgrade, but are also on the horizon, are the ability to have multiple email aliases in a single account as well as an option to update a mail account with a new name. That latter feature is particularly useful if a user is hoping to move from, say "DaveDrinks21" to "Davethefuturegovernor", without having to start over with a new account, email history and contact list.