Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Ask Bill Gates, whose Microsoft Corp. re-launched its free Web-based Hotmail service this week with a host of gee-whiz features. A close look reveals that it mimicks Google’s Gmail feature for feature on many counts.
Much water has flown down the Cauvery since Bangalore boy Sabeer Bhatia sold his startup to Microsoft for a cool $400 million nearly a decade ago. Microsoft, which is not really into freebies, let Hotmail bleed after loosely building its MSN Messenger around it, as Yahoo got smarter with its mail as well.
But it was Gmail that came up with startling features that got the world ready for an era in which files would be heavier, and bandwidth higher,to enable easier instant connections.
Gmail offered 2 gigabytes of memory free, and ticks that storage up by the second, with the current offer at more than 2.8 gigabytes. Powering its strategy around the slogan of “search, don’t delete” Gmail caught on, but its other features were as powerful, such as a Web-based instant messenger that lets you talk to your friends through the browser without having to download a separate messenger software, or free add-ons like a blog (Web diary) account and other features like Picasa, the photo-sharing software.
Yahoo was not exactly sleeping on the job. It increased the free storage to 2 GB as well (something India’s own Rediff Mail even earlier). Yahoo also launched a beta version of its mail that enables users to browse received mail and sort or delete them without having to open each one. Earlier this month, it matched Google with its own browser-based instant messenger.
What does all that mean for Windows Live Hotmail? A lot because Microsoft has picked up features from both Gmail and Yahoo mail to woo consumers, as it bets on an “always on” broadband environment.
Hotmail now offers blogs, designed and targeted for cooler young audiences under its Windows Spaces tag, while its instant messenger promises to enable broadcast-quality video. However, it does not have a browser-interfaced instant messenger yet. But it matches Gmail by offering calendar, search and contact modules within the email interface.
It also has a cooler look and feel and offers colour customisation, like Yahoo does. Other features such as importing contact books and auto-filling of addresses are now offered by all.
Hotmail also matches Gmail in offering its services for mobile handsets, though the jury is out on how good that is.
A Google spokeswoman told Hindustan Times that Gmail for mobile is automatically synchronised with a user’s Web-based Gmail account.
“Reading, replying, archiving and searching through emails is just as simple. Email attachments like photos, PDF and text documents can all easily be viewed from mobile devices. The application is free of charge,” she said.
Gmail also enables recording of text chats and easy threading of mails to enable smooth records, which is something Hotmail is yet to match.
However, Microsoft could have an edge thanks to its corporate email software, Outlook, which is now integrated with Hotmail. Outlook users can access Windows Live Hotmail free through their corporate software. Hotmail also offers keyboard shortcuts and its own warnings against phishing (Internet frauds and identity thefts through emails) which are unique to it. Both Gmail and Hotmail offer filters against unwanted email (spam). John Gantz, chief research officer of industry researcher IDC, told Hindustan Times that it was debatable if Microsoft had lost ground.
“Certainly better security and new features for Outlook will help the company pursue its strategy, but many consumers and business people will continue to use both Google products and Microsoft products,” he said.
The Outlook-style Hotmail enables easier preview of mails coming by the loads through a reading pane, which is a feature offered by Yahoo but not quite by Gmail. Windows Live also offers an audio button to play sound files but that does quite match distant rival Mail.com, which has a speech recognition button that lets you listen to your text mail.
“New Windows Live Hotmail features are designed to make Hotmail e-mail safer and more productive, and enable customers to better manage and customise their communication experience,” Microsoft said in a statement.
What this means is that Bill Gates may be bouncing back into the consumer Internet game. But this time, the competition is tougher.
The consumer, however, may well have the last laugh. So much for free doesn’t exactly hurt.