I got a preview of new version of Hotmail, the Microsoft owned email service yesterday, which is expected to be rolled out server-by-server (so we’re told) over the next few months. The first question on my mind was – will this make it easier for me to manage my email? Over the past few years, given that over a hundred emails hit my inboxes every day, I have tweaked my Gmail account to the extreme, with canned responses, filters for everything (especially email marketing blasts), mailbrowser for managing contacts and attachments, and labels/tags for accessing emails that tend to be drowned by the deluge. Nevertheless, my email management still needs a lot of work.

The short answer is – no. The new Hotmail is a big improvement over the previous version, but it isn’t as customizable as Gmail. But how many people beyond the power users know how to, or even know about most of Gmail’s features. Hotmail incorporates many standardized filters, adds a few very useful features on top of it, and makes it easy for the average consumer. An attempt has also been to make Hotmail into an online social aggregator for all your updates, but I don’t think content owners will be very comfortable with the way search has been implemented within Hotmail:

Features

— Attachments Up To 10GB & Skydrive integration: At present, I’m limited by Gmail to a limit of 20mb per attachment. What Microsoft had done smartly, is integrated their online storage solution SkyDrive with Hotmail. So when you upload 10GB of photos to your email, they will be stored online in SkyDrive, which also makes it easier for the attachments to be searched. This will also help Microsoft increase utilization of the SkyDrive service. While I like this move, what I’d like to see, is the integration of Hotmail with Microsofts Live Mesh, which would allow you to sync files to an online storage space, and attach them to your email without having to upload them separately. I use (and love) an alternative to LiveMesh – Dropbox, for sharing files across my laptop and desktops. It would be great for me to be able to right-click on a document in Dropbox, and email it to a contact with a few clicks.

— Sweep Tools: allow all emails from a particular address to be deleted automatically, and blocks future mails from that sender. Excellent for those of us subscribed to multiple newsletters without permission. One can do the same thing in Gmail, but you would have to manually create a filter for it. Gmail is much more malleable, while Hotmail is far more focused on the use who isn’t tech savvy.

— Threaded Interface: though this isn’t activated automatically, the new Hotmail allows users to view conversations in a threaded format, rather than one email at a time. Prashant Thakur, Head, Mobile Services and Search for Microsoft India told me that there are still people who find threaded emails confusing, so giving users the option to toggle the threaded interface on and off makes it easy.

— Lacks Indic Language Integration: this is a global upgrade of Hotmail, but it does appear to lack localization. Unlike RediffMail and GMail, Hotmail doesn’t incorporate Indic language transliteration which would allow users to compose emails in Indian languages. It also surprises me that no email service provider (that I know of) has yet launched an Indic-language only interface, and cater to bilingual users only.

— Social Sites Integration: There are essentially two features for social networks built into Hotmail: one of these involves pre-set filters which allows the Hotmail user to separate emails received from social sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Digg, among others. So you can view your emails from all social networks in a single interface, and even batch process them using sweep.

But the more compelling feature is the attempt to make Hotmail into a social network aggregator: Users can pull updates from as many as 35 social networks and bookmarking sites, and update them from within Hotmail. Note that Rediffmail, and subsequently Yahoo had also integrated social updates, albeit not as many as 35. Thakur said that the integration of multiple networks helps them keep users active on the network: for example, you may not be using a particular network (LinkedIn, for example) on a regular basis, but with Hotmail pulling those updates in, it would encourage you to go back to the network. That would, of course, depend on whether you are pulling in updates. We’re expecting an update from Microsoft on the names of the social networks: particularly the Indian ones.

Update: Microsoft informs us that the messages from the following sites can be accessed from within Hotmail. Facebook, Youtube, My Space, Flickr, Photobucket, Twitter, CNET, DIgg, Hulu, Yelp, Dailymotion, Typepad, Pandora, Live journal, Last.fm, Buddytv.com, Flixster, Smugmug, Multiply, Newsvine, Like, Slideshare, Goodreads, Stumbleupon, Wow.ya.ru, Dada, Metroflog, Wat.tv, Libero community, Fotolog, Blogs@mail.Ru, Daum, Blingee, Skyrock, Tistory, Miniblog. Also in the list are “WordPress, Blog RSS Feed”, but until I get access to try it out for myself, I really can’t explain how it will work.

One other feature that was quite interesting, was how, within Hotmail, one could access to inputs like birthdays and events listed on networks, not just news feeds.

— Search & Play Within Hotmail: It amazes me how search is evolving, and how the line between indexing links (for providing access to a site), and republishing or scraping is no longer clear. One of the more interesting integrations within Hotmail, is that of Bing Search – wherein users can now not only search for images and videos within Hotmail, but also add them to their email.

If I were a copyright owner, and my content was being published illegally on a video-sharing site like YouTube or iShare, I wouldn’t be very happy about it being made easier to just search and add it to email. Hotmail and Bing aren’t republishing the content from search, or storing it on their servers: they’re only making it more convenient for content to be redistributed. They can say that under the DMCA, they are an intermediary, and users are choosing to transfer the content. But they’re making it easier.

Also, what about when they allow videos to be played within Hotmail. Gmail does that too. Both email services are being monetized by advertising, and the question needs to be asked – do they benefit monetarily from allowing this content to be played within their site, and are they also denying a site publishing that content an opportunity to monetize a pageview? Also, do video sharing sites that have licensed content also have the right to make it available for viewing within another site – won’t that be redistribution? We’re awaiting a response from Hotmail on what kind of an arrangement they have with video sharing sites.

Microsoft Office Within Hotmail (update): MS Office has also been integrated with Hotmail, which allows users to edit documents and powerpoint slides within Hotmail, and these get stored automatically in Skydrive. What I particularly liked about this, is the addition of version control – multiple iterations of the document are saved as you make changes, so you can undo changes that you’ve made. In case of powerpoint, you can add transitions, pre-prepared templates, flowcharts – the works. As software moves to the cloud, it appears that access points to the software will be key. A single login will make a huge difference, as it does in case of most Google services.

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