Hotmail has had some seriously bad rap over the years, and is now almost universally shunned by tech professionals and bloggers. The main complaint has always been that the service is spam riddled, but is that fair? Is it time we gave Hotmail – the daddy of web based email – another chance to win back our hearts?
The Early Days
Hotmail was one of the first ever free webmail services, and I was one of the first to sign up when I was still in secondary school back in 1996. It was a revolution, signalling freedom from ISP-based email addresses – a truly portable solution that would stay with you for life, no matter where in the world you were located and no matter who you chose to get your Internet from.
After a few years of usage, my inbox was so full of certifiable spam that it was completely useless. Like many others, I abandoned my Hotmail account, and the stigma of the service being spam ridden has stuck with me to this day. Is that entirely fair though?
I don’t think so. I think the majority of the blame actually lies with me, the user. I would plaster my email anywhere I could, throwing it onto web forms in exchange for free toothpaste samples or simply just to say “hey guys, I have an email address, how awesome is that?“. It was a twilight period where we didn’t quite understand the new fangled email thing, and I suspect many of you did the same.
Legislative protections that we take for granted today simply didn’t exist back then – there was no online privacy or data protection act. Opting-out of future email wasn’t an option for a long time, and unscrupulous marketing types had free range with our email addresses.
Once our email addresses were put on the Internet in plain sight, it was only a matter of time before spammers would start harvesting them. Nowadays, we make sure to hide our address with little tricks like “email me: jamesbruce AT makeuseof DOT com“, or by putting indirect contact forms onto websites instead of direct mailto: links. In short, we got savvy about protecting our virtual assets. We’re careful about who we give our email to now, and some of us even create new mail accounts purely to give out – a burner – which we can just nuke if things get nasty.
None of that helped our Hotmail addresses though, which were overridden with torrential amounts of self-inflicted junk email. Abandoning them was the only option, and it left a bad taste in our mouths that some of us just can’t shake. Sure, Microsoft could have stepped up their anti-spam game sooner than they did, but I think we need to accept responsibility here for being so careless in the first place.
It wasn’t just the spam though – around the year 2000 when Hotmail was beginning to be integrated with MSN Messenger and other Microsoft services, a serious security bug meant that any Hotmail account could be accessed with the password ‘eh‘. Eh, indeed.
Another bug in 2001 meant anyone with a Hotmail account could randomly delete messages from another account using a carefully crafted URL containing the other email address and a message number.
Looking To The Future & Today
Since those dark times of pathetic security and overflowing spam, Microsoft have continued to invest in improving the service, spurred on by the popularity of their main competitor, Gmail. Current estimates put Hotmail and Gmail in the top spot in terms of active users, both weighing in at a hefty 350 million, with Yahoo Mail a close second at 280 million. In a market like that, Hotmail must be doing something to remain competitive.
According to Microsoft, the dark days of 2006 when 30% of a user’s inbox were spam are well and truly over. SmartScreen now checks emails against a list of your most visited sites and a central server of known malware, even going so far as to block phishing attempts. Today, they say, less than 3% of a typical Hotmail users’ inbox is spam – an even more incredible number when you consider that 80% of all email on the Internet is spam.
As well as all the usual features you’d expect a modern webmail service to have – like POP access for desktop clients, importing contacts and the ability to check your other email accounts (Gmail, Yahoo, or generic accounts), Hotmail has also implemented a series of user-friendly ways to obliterate inbox clutter from newsletters and similar services, which I’ll demonstrate in detail next time.
It’s about time we got rid of that old stigma and started recommending Hotmail again. I for one, am ready to give Hotmail a second chance. How about you? Do you currently use Hotmail and have some niggling complaints? Or are you more like this guy? What features do you think Gmail has that would convince you to switch to Hotmail?