When your users spend more time deleting messages than reading email on your webmail service, you know it's time to make email easier to deal with.
"The inbox has got out of control," Chris Jones, corporate vice president for Windows Live, told TechRadar. "Our approach is to take the common things people do and make them easier."
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The changes coming to Hotmail this summer promise to unclutter your inbox, Jones claims. "It used to be if you had 19 unread messages, that was 19 mails from real people that you need to read. Today, it's 19 newsletters that you don't need to read, or it's reminders saying 'the meeting starts at ten'.
"If I look at my Hotmail, I have 64 unread messages but right at the front I have three mails from my contacts, three social updates, two packages that have been shipped to me and some upcoming birthdays in my social network. We make it easy to get from the 64 messages to the three messages you want."
The big issue isn't spam, although the Hotmail team spends a lot of time staying ahead of the spammers; it's real email that people mark as spam rather than dealing with.
"You visited a web site, you forgot not to check the box and now it's haunting your inbox. With the Sweep feature we don't just delete that message but we delete all messages from that sender – and we block future messages form that sender. We went ahead and got rid of that newsletter for you"
Why not just make it easier to unsubscribe? "People keep hitting delete over and over on the same newsletters. All the unsubscribe information is there but they don't use it."
And once the newsletters are gone? "Our job is to get the signal to noise ratio to be really high and get the noise out of your inbox so you can pay attention to the things that are the really interesting things in your inbox," says Jones.
"All email programs have always treated mail all the same. We recognise that email is different. Instead of users having to make rules to manage it for them, we make it easy to read. However photos are shared, we make them a slide show; however documents are attached, we make them easy to edit. Whatever link is attached, we make sure you're getting the value of the link."
What's filling the space?
When the Hotmail team looked at what was filling up their 50 petabytes of storage (which is growing at almost 2 petabytes a month) they found most of what takes up the space isn't the eight billion incoming messages.
95% of Hotmail's storage is attachments – 55% of that is photos and 15% is Office documents. "Email is the most popular way people share photos, the most popular way to collaborate on documents, the most popular way to share links," says Jones. "What's missing is tools to help people manage and connect with all the things they care about."
Those figures suggest that repeated rumours that email is dead are more like wishful thinking. "We certainly have a point of view on that," Jones says with a smile.
"Actually, email is becoming more and more important. People who use a social network are twice as likely to check their inbox. 20% of mail we get today is from our social network and that's growing. A lot of people now chat from their inbox. We think the challenge is that different things are coming into your inbox; you want to do different things and email has to evolve."
Email on the phone
Jones also points to the 25% growth Hotmail has seen in users viewing personal email on the phone. "Phones are now essential email devices; as people are buying smartphones they want the ability to take their inbox with them. They want all of it; not just your mail, you want to be able to call people and look up your calendar. Active Sync made that possible for us."
Jones calls the iPad both "an opportunity and a challenge" for Hotmail, because it doesn't support the Silverlight Hotmail uses for photo slideshows and document upload to SkyDrive. iPhone and iPad users want to use the native mail client, he says.
"What we'll do on the iPad is take the iPhone experience and make it work on iPad. We'll see a mobile experience really optimised for iPad. That will be the same on any touch phone, like Palm or Windows Phone 7."
Hotmail is the most popular webmail service worldwide; of the competition, Yahoo is flat, AOL is losing users steadily – and both Hotmail and Gmail are growing.
Having caught up on what Jones calls "basic features – we knew there were a couple of things we needed to add that are valuable to the customer that were causing people to pick other providers instead of us," he believes Hotmail is now ahead.
"We've got the same features as Gmail but with all the great filtering and the power of understanding the different senders. I think this update is the most significant we've ever done."