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Hotmail gets a makeover

Free email, one of the hottest markets on the Net, is trying to cope with growing pains.

Free email, one of the hottest markets on the Net, is trying to cope with growing pains.

Today, Hotmail said it has implemented a new architecture to handle its expanding network. The move comes after recent criticism from users for some reliability problems.

Hotmail chief technology officer Jack Smith conceded that the "last few months have been somewhat painful." But he promised that starting in March, "our users should enjoy consistently responsive service and extremely fast email delivery."

Earlier this month CNET reported that a technical glitch at Hotmail caused some customers to think they were getting other people's email, but the company said there was no security breach. The problem affected as many as 50,000 customers.

The complaints are not confined to Hotmail. Some users also have complained about reliability problems at competitors such as NetAddress. NetAddress also says it has taken steps to work out the bugs.

Free email, which is supported by advertising on the sites, is growing rapidly. Hotmail, for one, says it now has 2 million users, up from 1 million users less than two months ago. In addition to NetAddress, another rapidly expanding player is Juno Online Services.

But the nacent market already has undergone a shakeout. In December, one of the industry pioneers, Freemark Communications, suspended operations.

To help differentiate themselves, the companies keep adding features for users. For instance, NetAddress says it soon plans to offer group mail--to create an email address for a user's entire family or close friends. It also plans to have user's email forwarded by faxing and paging.

Hotmail is offering a new user interface, which it claims to be more user-friendly.