Surprise: Some Innovation from Microsoft

E-mail is the ugly, mean stepchild of the Internet. It’s there, no one cares about it, no one knows what to do about it and it just won’t go away. And it can frustrate us. Innovation has been approximately non-existent with the advent of free e-mail apps. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover what Microsoft is doing with Hotmail.

The new version of Hotmail cashes in on Microsoft’s decades of experience with e-mail. In almost Jobsian fashion, Microsoft lists the three biggest customer frustrations with e-mail and then offers technical solutions.

  1. Too much spam
  2. Can’t send large attachments
  3. Junk mail cluttering up my inbox

In order to solve the problem of spam, Microsoft makes the formal distinction between spam and clutter. Spam is generally malicious, unwelcome, e-mail from someone trying to get your money or credit card number. Clutter, on the other hand is junk mail, sometimes derived from a vendor you did business with a long time ago. Or it could be some kind of legitimate sales promotion from someone who’s obtained your e-mail address.

Spam can be dealt with, but clutter can obscure important messages from family and friends. If special filters are too geeky to deal with, people won’t use them, so people need good tools. The bane of most users is that their inbox becomes a graveyard, full of stuff that really needs to be swept away.


Microsoft’s enhancements to Hotmail are numerous. I can’t say they are unobvious or earthshaking, but taken as a whole, it appears that Microsoft has put some thought into creating a more usable e-mail environment with tools people can really use. This includes the normal filters but also Quick Views: those e-mails that contain photos, documents or are from shippers that have tracking numbers. Another feature is Sweep. You can sweep messages from a specific sender into a kind of e-mail limbo. If you’re in the mood, you can go visit those messages when it suits you. The concept of Trusted Sender is introduced. Also, and I’m not sure I like this one, but the new Hotmail launches with a highlight page rather than an inbox. This is an effort to help users home in on important stuff rather than be overwhelmed, at launch, by the classic in box.

This isn’t a review, so I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of these features. Rather, this is a reaction on my part — someone who’s been extremely frustrated with e-mail apps and the state of e-mail for years.

In the past, I have given kudos to BusyMac for doing calendaring right with BusyCal. Apple essentially dropped the ball with iCal in my opinion. As a result, I have been hoping that Apple would eventually get around to doing e-mail right. However, Apple’s just limps along, acquiring needless features like RSS and To Do lists, but not really solving the basic problems users have with e-mail in typical Apple brilliant fashion.

It’s too early to know if the enhancements Microsoft has announced will withstand the test of time. Some competitors may also claim that, in principle, they can do everything the new Hotmail can do. Maybe. But taken as a whole, my first reaction from reading about it is that Microsoft has analyzed the common problems customers have and built an integrated set of tools to help them deal with e-mail in a helpful, intelligent way. And then, Microsoft has explained it all in a coherent fashion on its website. Katherine Boehret with All Things Digital agrees.

I like what I’m seeing from Microsoft’s e-mail innovation.