Microsoft Targets Google With Hotmail Makeover

Microsoft is continuing its attack on Google and its run for all things cloud computing with sweeping changes to its free Hotmail Web-based email offering that make Hotmail more closely resemble its Google-based rival Gmail.

Now officially dubbed Windows Live Hotmail, the software giant has tweaked Hotmail’s inbox features and added new photo, video and document sharing capabilities. The updates add features to the oft-maligned Hotmail offering to make it function more like Gmail, a bold move as Microsoft and Google continue to compete in the growing cloud computing arena.

’We’re not the shiniest new object out there, but we are the largest,’ said Walter Harp, director of product management for Hotmail and SkyDrive during a sneak preview of the new Hotmail features last month. Harp said Hotmail boasts more than 8 billion messages per day.

Harp said the three goals of the new Windows Live Hotmail – a revamp that started in earnest about a year ago – are to help users manage inbox clutter, save time on email tasks and make it easier to work with the just-released Microsoft Office 2010 and Web Apps, which were officially released last week.

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To manage clutter, Hotmail now offers a ’Sweep’ feature that lets users easily delete unwanted emails, move them to a certain folder or mark them as read in one fell swoop. Using Sweep, a user can select one message from a particular sender and all inbox messages from that sender will be whisked to the appropriate folder or trash can.

The new Windows Live Hotmail inbox also features conversation view, a feature that made Google’s Gmail offering popular, where email threads are lumped into one continuous conversation to reduce the inbox footprint and keep conversations in a logical progression. The new one-click filters also let users view all emails from a particular sender, like Facebook or Amazon. Along with that, Harp said Microsoft retooled the inbox search capabilities by adding an advanced search box that offers auto-search suggestions.

To ease everyday email tasks and manage email more efficiently, Harp said Windows Live Hotmail now lets users send and view photos more quickly. Users can now create a photo folder on Microsoft’s cloud-based SkyDrive and send the link to recipients instead of storage-gobbling photo attachments. Users can then preview images, watch them as a slideshow or download them. Photos can be auto-previewed using the Active View function without leaving the inbox, similar to Gmail, from services like Flickr.

NEXT: Document Editing, Collaboration From The Hotmail Inbox

Harp said third-party videos, like from Hulu and YouTube, can also be watched without navigating away from Hotmail.

And working in concert with the new features in Microsoft Office 2010, including the Web Apps cloud computing components, Hotmail also now lets users view, edit and share Microsoft Office documents whether or not Office is installed on the machine. Using SkyDrive, users can upload documents and user Web Apps to edict and collaborate.

The revamped Hotmail also eases the way Hotmail users connect via social networking sites like LinkedIn, letting users add contacts directly from their Hotmail inboxes. Harp noted that more than 350 million Office Documents are shared on Hotmail each month.

According to Harp, an attachment can be uploaded to SkyDrive from hotmail and into the cloud to be shared with other users. From the attachment the document can be edited and resent or sent as a link to make the document viewable and editable in a browser.

Other new Hotmail features include the ability to view shipping information for packages and interact with other Web sites directly in the inbox, without leaving Hotmail. Harp said many of the new Windows Live Hotmail features will be available in June.

Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail refresh is the software company's latest attempt to reclaim the crown from Google as the two of powerhouses continue to bump heads on various fronts and seek control over the cloud and Web-based applications markets.

Google’s and Microsoft’s cloud kerfuffle reached its peak last week with the release of Microsoft Office 2010, which includes cloud-based versions of popular Office applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint, called Web Apps. The Web Apps offerings are a direct jab at Google’s widely popular Google Apps and Google Docs offerings that helped establish the market for cloud-based productivity software.

Google quickly went on the offensive, urging users to avoid Office 2010 and upgrade to Google Apps and Google Docs to add cloud and collaboration capabilities to current Office 2007 deployments, saying Office 2010 lacks many of Google’s key collaboration features. Microsoft, however, called into question the compatibility between Google Docs and Microsoft Office.