CEO Steve Ballmer last week previewed the new version of Messenger. Microsoft isn't quite ready to detail everything its planning for the next Hotmail, but general manager Brian Hall offered a pretty good indication of where the company is placing its bets.
"This release, while we are not going into any details right now, it is the one that places Hotmail back on top, especially for busy people who just want an efficient e-mail," Hall said over lunch on Monday. Hall was here to check out the Web 2.0 event.
For those wanting the specifics, Windows Live enthusiast blog LiveSide.net has a story about what would appear to be the key features of the new release, including the addition of conversation view, Exchange ActiveSync for a push connection to mobile devices, and much deeper ties to social networks.
Hall declined to comment specifically on the report, but talked about his views generally on each of these areas.
One of the key ideas, Hall said, is to recognize how much has changed in the 15 years that people have had free Web mail services.
"It's not just all attachments any more," he said. "Now, I may send an attachment or a set of attachments, or I might send a Flickr link or I might send a YouTube link. How do you make it so people can stay within your center of activity, in e-mail."
According to the LiveSide report, users will be able to edit Office documents and view a Flickr slideshow or a YouTube video, all from within the new Hotmail.
As for updates from social networks, Hall noted that they now account for 5 percent of mail volume. He noted that the goal of an e-mail service should be to let users take action without having to leave their in-box. As for the specifics, he wouldn't go into detail.
"You'll see," Hall said.
Hall also talked about conversation view, which has been one of the key selling points for Gmail since the service debuted.
"It's a good option." However, he noted that with the beta of Office 2010, Microsoft had its new conversation view feature on by default in the beta, but opted to make the more standard view the default for Outlook 2010, requiring those who want conversation view to turn on the feature. "Trying to take a one-size-fits-all approach for everyone generally doesn't work for anyone," he said.
Microsoft, in particular, has found it sometimes has to move slow with Hotmail. When it tried its first radical revamp of the software back in 2006, users found the changes too jarring and Microsoft was forced to initially add a "classic view" and ultimately to make that the default option.
The software maker is expected to detail the new Hotmail in the coming weeks as well as provide a clearer time frame for its release. Microsoft probably won't make a test version of Hotmail available, Hall said, though it will take six weeks for all users to get the product, once it is released.
Hall also made some bold pronouncements on the competition, taking shots at both Google and Yahoo.
"It's a two-horse race at this point in e-mail," discounting Yahoo, even though it is still the leader in the U.S. market. Gmail, he said, continues to outpace Hotmail's growth, increasing 20 percent last year. However, he said that Microsoft still grew 8 percent, adding more than 50 million in-boxes to remain the global leader. Yahoo Mail, he said, was relatively flat.
Hall also took a shot at Google's methods of building Gmail.
"Our approach is different," he said. "We don't throw things in a lab and see if anyone wants to use it. We plan a lot more. We release in an integrated fashion and don't really subject our customers to ideas that haven't been well thought through."