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October 9, 2005 10:32 PM PDT / Updated: October 9, 2005 10:32 PM PDT

MSN Kahuna Beta

Much like the ongoing renovation of Yahoo Mail, MSN Hotmail is getting a face-lift that makes it resemble a desktop e-mail client. The code name for this work in progress is Kahuna, and it promises big changes for its tens of millions of users. Like Yahoo, the new Hotmail will use a blend of dynamic HTML and JavaScript, dubbed AJAX, to preload messages so that you don't have to wait long for content to appear. Other convenient tweaks include the ability to drag and drop messages into folders. Until now, only about 5,000 testers have given Kahuna a whirl. Later this fall, Microsoft plans to expand testing with some 200,000 users, who can later invite friends to try the new service. But as of our review date, the Kahuna beta isn't available to the general public. See our MSN Kahuna Beta slide show for pictures of the new interface.




The changes to Hotmail, code-named Kahuna, will split messages up into three panes, similar to the layout of desktop programs such as Outlook.

Upside: The look and feel of Kahuna is radically different from that of the current Hotmail, with an interface divided into three columns similar to the three-pane work space of Microsoft Outlook and Yahoo Mail Beta. This makes it easy to drag and drop multiple messages into folders--a boon if messages have piled up in your Inbox. Keyboard shortcuts let you send and manage messages without relying on the mouse. Other tweaks include rich text editing and emoticons for dressing up messages. And outdoing Yahoo Mail, Kahuna will provide 2GB for free--still less than Gmail's 2.5GB.




Within Kahuna's list of messages, click the right mouse button on a particular e-mail, and a menu of choices pops up for dealing with the note.

The security improvements for Hotmail look promising, due to efforts to detect phishing messages. Within Kahuna, an Infobar atop messages lights up when e-mail arrives from an unknown sender, and it even blocks images and URLs from loading until you accept them. You can either report a message as spam or allow senders with one mouse click. As with the current Hotmail, premium users can integrate contacts with Outlook, MSN Spaces, and MSN Messenger . Paid users can also share calendars with Outlook and send and receive appointments from other users.

Downside: Getting used to the new layout may be hard for die-hard fans of Hotmail. Kahuna works with Internet Explorer 5.5 and up, but not with Firefox. And privacy watchdogs, take note: Microsoft is considering an advertising approach similar to that of Gmail, in which ads would reflect the content of your e-mail messages. That said, Microsoft says that any such system, if built, would give users the choice to opt in to it. And we liked that Kahuna was faster than the current Hotmail, though we ran into a few speed bumps. For example, we received a "browser error" message when trying to ditch a message that was in progress. Because Kahuna lacks the tabbed messaging of Yahoo Mail Beta, it's difficult to interrupt a message in progress and return to it later.

Unfortunately, we couldn't get the autocomplete feature to work. Other usability items sit on our wish list. For example, at the time of this writing, Kahuna doesn't allow you to collapse or nest folders. And many of the more intriguing new features in the works, such as RSS integration, aren't available in this round of beta testing.

Outlook: We look forward to tracking the ongoing transformation of Web-based e-mail services, à la Kahuna and Yahoo Mail Beta. With a look and feel that mimics desktop e-mail, Kahuna improves Hotmail's ease of use. And beyond the new designs, both Yahoo and Microsoft are aiming to make their online e-mail services a one-stop destination for a bundle of services. For example, MSN Spaces blogs and MSN Messenger may eventually funnel into the Hotmail interface. We're also curious about what role photo albums and RSS newsfeeds might play. But Kahuna is in its early beta testing stages, so we've gathered only a glimpse of how the next rollout of Hotmail will work. See our MSN Kahuna Beta slide show for snapshots of the new interface.

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