Microsoft tries to make Hotmail cool again with overhaul

Microsoft battles graymail with five new automated features for Hotmail

Microsoft is trying to overhaul Hotmail in an attempt to make its free email service cool again.

The company on Monday announced several new automatic features aimed at cleaning up Hotmail accounts and helping users organize piles of so-called graymail.

"We realized that getting rid of true spam wasn't enough, because 75% of the email messages that people reported as spam are really legitimate newsletters, offers, or notifications that you just don't want anymore," wrote Dick Craddock, Microsoft 's group program manager for Hotmail, in a blog post . "We call this type of unwanted email graymail, and we're excited to announce five powerful tools to help you take control of your inbox, get rid of graymail, and keep track of the email that's important to you."

Craddock also reported that more updates for Hotmail will be launched in the coming weeks.

This is good news for an email service that has slipped in public perception, said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research. With competitors like Google's Gmail and Yahoo Mail in the free email space, Hotmail's popularity has taken a slide.

Adding features to manage and clean up Hotmail accounts could be enough to add a new shine to the service and draw some users back.

"Well, I agree with Microsoft here, and I don't do that very often. Graymail is a huge problem, particularly for anyone with an email account more than a couple of years old," Kerravala said. "For Microsoft, it gives a feature that other cloud -based mail providers do not have. I can see the updates to Hotmail being a win-win-win for the sender, receiver and Microsoft."

The company is rolling out five new features: a newsletter category, automatic unsubscribe assistance; automatic inbox cleanup, improvements to email flags and an upgrade to email categories.

According to Microsoft, 50% of typical email inboxes are filled with newsletters and deals notices. To help tackle that flood of traffic, Microsoft is adding a Newsletter category to Hotmail so newsletters automatically will be organized in one file.

Want to unsubscribe to a newsletter? Microsoft will also help you do that.

"Now with Hotmail you can do it all in one step," wrote Craddock. "Click on unsubscribe, and we'll do the rest - let the site know to stop mailing you, use Sweep to immediately clean up your mail and remove all the old newsletters from that sender, and finally send any new ones that come in to your junk mail until the sender takes you off their list."

Another new feature, dubbed Schedule Cleanup, can automatically delete or file all but the latest messages from a particular sender.

Microsoft is also working to make email flags more helpful.

"Now when you flag a message, it gets "pinned" to the top of your inbox and stays there, even as new email comes in," wrote Craddock in his blog. "This means it is easy to keep track of your most important messages, right up front, all the time. What's more, you can even set up rules to automatically flag incoming mail from certain senders, so that your most important mail is always right there at the top of your inbox."

Hotmail also has a new way of handling email categories.

If you create a new category and apply it to all related messages, Hotmail will gather those emails together for you. You won't have to go back and search through old emails to add to the new category. The new feature will find them for you.

"Most people don't have the time or desire for all of this," Kerravala said. "In a way this is mail middleware ... The Hotmail features act like a middleware layer and can take care of the complicated stuff, allowing the user to simply click a mouse button."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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Sharon Gaudin

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