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Apparently, Microsoft is still trying to get people to use Hotmail

When I first signed up for an e-mail account back in 1996, it was a Hotmail account. I got in before Microsoft bought the service. Until about 2001, I had a four-digit password.

HotmailLooking back at the history, it appears I must have been one of the service’s first generation of users. I didn’t know that back then. I was just a high school student following instructions from a teacher who assured us that the account would come in handy someday.

Now, 14 years later, I still have that Hotmail account. I haven’t used it since about 2000, but it’s still there. In fact, it seems that it’s been dormant so long that even the spammers have forgotten that it exists.

I log in from time to time to keep it “active” and for nostalgia’s sake, but I would never dream of using it. Having at the end of your e-mail address strikes me as immature for some reason, like, “You couldn’t find a better e-mail service than Hotmail? That’s what high schoolers use!”

(Disclaimer: I have no idea what high schoolers use these days.)

I mention all this because of an article by Ashlee Vance in the New York Times yesterday. Despite its massive number of users — more than 360 million, the most of any webmail service in the world — Hotmail has a bad image. Vance writes:

Hotmail suffers in the United States from a bit of a “perception problem,” as the Microsoft vice president Chris Jones put it. People perceive that Hotmail is plagued by spam, has underwhelming storage, is missing a lot of features and is basically yesteryear’s e-mail service.

“This is partially because Hotmail has been around for a while,” Mr. Jones said, celebrating Hotmail as the first Web e-mail service to hit it really big. “Of late, Gmail has been first with a big inbox, the first with IMAP and because of those firsts, it has good buzz going with it.”

More to the point, Mr. Jones admitted that, “There were features people expected to have in e-mail that we haven’t had.”

So it looks like Microsoft is keen in playing a major league game of catch-up. The promised new features, expected to debut this summer, include different inboxes that automatically filters messages into four inboxes, one for personal contacts, one for business, one for social networking e-mails and one for spam.

The rest of the webmail-using public calls these “filters” or “rules” and has been using them for years. Microsoft is just turning a few of them on by default.

Anyway, there are a few other new features. You can read the Times posting or Microsoft’s blog post announcing the new features. My real question is this: Even if Microsoft makes Hotmail the most feature-rich and advanced webmail service out there, will people come back to it. Will it be enough to overcome its image problem?