Hotmail Conquers Graymail; Market Share May Be Next

Remember Hotmail? Of course you do. Back in the day you had an account, but you stopped using it--even if you could get past the spam overload, the teasing from your friends probably finally put you over the edge. Besides, a few years ago there was really nothing Hotmail provided that you couldn’t get from the likes of Yahoo! Mail or Gmail.

Now, however, Hotmail is making a comeback; Microsoft has been hard at work reincarnating the email service over the last couple of years, and now the Hotmail team is ready to show off the fruits of their labor.

We’ll admit that we were a mite bit skeptical upon hearing about this new and supposedly improved Hotmail, but after a walkthrough with the Microsoft folks, we have to say that we’re pleasantly surprised.

For one thing, the Microsoft folks aren’t shying away from what we’re all thinking. They know that Gmail is the preferred email provider of most techies these days and that Hotmail is often a punch line in those circles, but undaunted, they’ve cranked out an email service that looks to be able to go toe-to-toe with any other Web-based email available.

Conquering Graymail

Above all else, when the Hotmail team was looking at the best ways to improve the email experience, the primary focus was on graymail. Simply put, graymail is the type of email that often seems like spam but is actually stuff that you’ve either signed up for or opted into receiving, such as newsletters, special deals, online coupons, social network updates, and the like.

According to Microsoft, graymail takes up to a dizzying 80% of the average user’s inbox, and that percentage is only expected to rise in the coming years.

The trouble with graymail is that, unlike spam, you actually want some of it; however, there’s a lot of volume to deal with, and much of it is chaff. Therefore, simply blocking it doesn’t make any sense. Instead, Microsoft has developed ways to manage and automate your graymail to deliver a less cluttered and more organized experience.

A feature called Sweep does a lot of the heavy lifting here by both automatically sorting many incoming messages and allowing users to set sorting rules based on their preferences. For example, although you might want to see every Groupon that comes down the pike, you only need to keep the most current one, so Schedule Cleanup will delete the rest to keep the clutter down. Further, Sweep automatically sorts messages by type and dumps them into the appropriate folders, so items such as social networking updates go here and financial statements go there. You can create your own custom categories, of course, and you can set up rules to have Sweep automatically delete emails from certain senders in bulk.

Hotmail has plenty details that add up to make the user experience smoother and simpler, such as automatically parking flagged messages at the top of your inbox. Yes, the whole point of flagging a message is so that it’s easy to find later on, but not having to scroll endlessly through your inbox is a nice change. (Plus, if the top of your message list is full of flagged items, you’re more likely to attend to them in a timely manner.)

Other subtle goodies include Instant Actions (i.e., “delete”, “flag”, “mark as unread”) that pop up when you mouse over a message; One-Click Filters at the top of your inbox that let you sort messages according to filters such as social updates or newsletters; QuickViews, which is another sort of filter on the left-hand side of your Hotmail screen for flagged messages, Office docs, and more (including custom categories); and easy access to Messenger, which is located just below QuickViews within Hotmail.

Graymail Wrangling Is Just The Beginning
Despite the fact that Microsoft wants to position graymail control as the centerpiece of Hotmail’s new feature set, we think the new-and-improved Hotmail has some other impressive features that will especially appeal to power users.

For one thing, Hotmail is available on all major smartphone platforms for free, so you won’t have to pay anything for it like you did in times past, and the user experience promises to be a smooth one.

One of the most enticing features of the new Hotmail is (virtually) unlimited storage. You’ll never see any indication where you’re at capacity-wise as an end user, but Microsoft told us that everyone starts out with 7GB of email storage, and as you need more, they’ll just keep adding it for you automatically. Abusers of the system may get capped (in terms of storage capacity we mean, not with a Glock 9mm), but the vast majority of users will never have to think about email storage limits at all.

As Google takes its time getting around to launching its cloud storage service that presumably will integrate with Gmail, Microsoft is already a step ahead. SkyDrive, Microsoft’s underrated cloud-based storage service and Office-in-the-cloud document hub, is tightly integrated with Hotmail.

You’ll be given the option of storing file attachments in SkyDrive, so instead of actually sending files back and forth to various recipients, you can send a thumbnail or link that calls up the stored file. Thus, not only can you effectively send large files—SkyDrive’s individual file size limit is jumping from 100MB to 300MB—you can also control who has access.

Hotmail also lets you create aliases, or “disposable email addresses”. These are full hotmail email addresses (though they’re not Live IDs), and they’re perfect for when you need to use an email addy to sign up for something but don’t want to give out your actual address.

How Hotmail Got Its Groove Back
In resurrecting Hotmail, Microsoft opted for evolution over revolution. The team simply looked at where the email experience was lacking and worked to turn weaknesses into strengths—which they successfully did—instead of scrapping Hotmail altogether and starting over.

The new version boasts a slew of automatic and user-defined controls for sorting graymail, features that would make any power user smile, and plenty of nice details to make the experience for every user an all-around pleasant one. You can giggle about the old Hotmail all you want, but make no mistake: this is not Hotmail ca. 2007.

Learn about smart tools from Hotmail to manage your inbox automatically and conquer graymail. Thanks to Microsoft for sponsoring this post. Although sponsored posts are paid for, an advertiser is not paying us for our opinion.