Hotmail is set to be consigned to history, marking the end of the era when the electronic mail service introduced many people to Internet and thanks to its Indian inventor, Sabeer Bhatia, heralded the country’s prowess in technology.
Microsoft on Wednesday launched Outlook.com, which it said will replace Hotmail, a move that is seen to be aimed at taking on increasing competition from Gmail, Facebook and Yahoo.
This spells the death of the free Web-based email service that Microsoft had bought from Bhatia and his colleague at Apple, Jack Smith, in 1998 for about $400 million, probably the biggest sum earned by an enterprise started by an Indian at the time.
That was about a decade before the advent of Gmail and two years after Bhatia and Smith launched Hotmail. The Chandigarh-born Bhatia, who grew up in Bangalore and was educated at St Joseph’s Boys before moving to the Silicon Valley, immediately came to represent the rising Indian techie in global imagination. Nothing that he did thereafter came close to the adulation that he received with his first creation.
In Microsoft’s words, when the US was filling up theatres to see the Hollywood flick Independence Day on July 4, 1996, Bhatia and Smith quietly liberated the world from the era of the snail mail and the new chic avatar of email was born.
“Back then in 1996, it was novel to have a personal email address you could keep for life – one that was totally independent from your business or internet service provider,” said Chris Jones, Microsoft’s corporate vice-president of Windows Live services.
Hotmail quickly grew to 40 million users within three years. Currently, it commands over 370 million users, more than the size of the entire US population. But aggressive bundling of web search and email helped Google capture the top spot with Gmail, which has about 425 million accounts. Yahoo! Mail is still behind Hotmail, though, with about 310 million users.
“We think the time is right to reimagine personal email, from the data centre to the user experience,” said Jones.
Many Hotmail users have welcomed the decision. “It was a much-needed move by Microsoft. With all the various login IDs of Hotmail, Windows Live ID, Xbox Live or Windows Phone, Microsoft was just confusing the average user,” said Clinton Jeff, well-known technology and mobile blogger, while adding, “But with Hotmail being
rechristened Outlook, it may confuse the lay web users who use Outlook Express to configure emails offline.”
Faisal Farooqui, CEO of Mouthshut.com, was more nostalgic. “I created a Hotmail account in 1996, while I was in college. But somewhere after Y2k, Hotmail lost in speed and innovation to Rediffmail in India. I think Outlook.com is a strategy for Microsoft to consolidate everything into a single brand, which they should have done long ago.”
Farooqui said he switched to Gmail a few years ago because of its strategy of one single account to authenticate all Google usage.
Outlook.com is available to users in preview form, while Hotmail will continue for now.
“Not much has fundamentally changed in webmail over the last eight years – though yesterday’s frustrations about the small size of inboxes are now things of the past. At the same time, email is becoming less and less useful as inboxes become cluttered,” said Jones, explaining the reason for the new webmail from Microsoft, in his blog.
The new Outlook.com will integrate tweets, status updates and photos of contacts, some of which Sabeer Bhatia yearned to see. In a recent interview with ET, Bhatia said that if he was in charge he would have created features in Hotmail that Facebook had early on. Hotmail kind of missed that boat, he said.