Google Steals Microsoft's Hotmail Thunder With Gmail Contextual Gadgets

Call it perfect timing. The same day Microsoft unveils a sweeping refresh to its Hotmail email offering, Google Apps hits the market with new gadgets to tweak and customize Gmail.

Microsoft on Tuesday added a host of new functions to Hotmail, now dubbed Windows Live Hotmail, its oft-maligned free Web-based email offering. The additions, which now enable photo previewing, social networking, video viewing and a host of new inbox functions like conversation view and one-click filtering, make Hotmail a little more like Gmail, which recently has become the free Web-mail of choice for many.

But Google was quick to counter and rain on Microsoft's Hotmail parade with the revealing of Gmail contextual gadgets.

Much like the new Windows Live Hotmail's biggest focus is enabling the use of other applications and functions without leaving the inbox, Google's contextual gadgets represents a new Gmail API that lets Google Apps Marketplace applications present relevant information to users in their Gmail, when they're reading a message, Chandrashekar Raghavan, Google apps extensions product manager, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

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"Contextual gadgets in Gmail – like YouTube, Google Docs and Picasa previews – intelligently display relevant information from other systems as you read your email, so you can be more efficient without leaving your inbox," Raghavan wrote.

Third-party developers can immediately start building Gmail contextual gadgets and distributing them in the Google Apps Marketplace. The gadgets, Google said, can display information from social networks, business services, Web applications and other systems. Users can interact with that data right within Gmail.

And, according to Google, a host of contextual gadgets for Gmail are already available in the Apps Marketplace.

New gadgets include AwayFind, which lets users mark certain contacts or messages as "urgent" so the user is alerted via phone, SMS or IM when relevant messages arrive; Kwaga, which displays social network profiles and lists recent email exchanges with people users correspond with; and Gist, which aggregates information from around the Web about people users are communicating with, providing person and company profiles, news and updates.

Other gadgets include Pixetell, which detects e-mail links to video messages created with Pixetell video software and lets users preview, comment on and share video without leaving their inbox; and Smartsheet, which lets users access and update entries in Smartsheet's sales pipeline and project management tool. Google said other companies like Xobni, Rapportive, Manymoon, Newmind Group and BillFLO have also launched contextual gadget integrations.

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"Like any other applications in the Google Apps Marketplace, a Google Apps domain administrator can install a contextual gadget from the Marketplace with just a few clicks," Raghavan wrote. "Both before and during the install process, administrators can review the portions of an email the gadget will have access to, and can revoke that permission at any time from their control panel."

Google's move to make e-mail more contextual and add features and functions to the inbox is the latest slap at Microsoft, which revealed its Hotmail refresh just hours earlier with a focus on helping users manage inbox clutter, save time on e-mail tasks and make it easier to work with the just-released Microsoft Office 2010 and Web Apps, which were officially released last week.

As part of the Windows Live Hotmail retooling, Microsoft added some Gmail-like features like conversation view and the ability to preview photos and videos directly from e-mail messages. Other new features include one-click filters; inbox access to social networking tools and sites; and the ability to view, edit and share Office documents directly from the Hotmail inbox.

With the launch of Gmail contextual gadgets, Google has out-Hotmailed Hotmail via the Gmail API which enables third-party developers to essentially make any Google Apps Marketplace applications usable from the Gmail inbox.

Google's response to Microsoft's Hotmail updates is also the latest in continual back-and-forth between the two tech powerhouses. Both companies have been bumping heads in more markets and both Google and Microsoft seek to control the growing cloud computing ecosystem.

The cloud battle between Google and Microsoft reached its peak last week when, on the eve of Microsoft Office 2010's official release, Google publicly urged Microsoft Office users to avoid upgrading to Office 2010 in favor of using Google Apps and Google Docs in concert with Office 2007. Google contends Microsoft Office 2010 lacks the collaboration features available in Google Apps and Google Docs, claims Microsoft denies.