Microsoft's MSN Hotmail has long been considered the 800-pound gorilla of the free email market, and it said today that it has bulked up even more in amassing more than 40 million members. But Microsoft, like other free email providers, has been hard-pressed to translate those millions of people into millions of dollars, instead pouring resources into keeping the service running under ever-growing demand.
It hasn't been an easy task, and critics have complained that Hotmail and its competitors are providing inadequate service.
The point of offering free email through Hotmail is to circulate users to other parts of the Microsoft Network where they might spend money. With this week's upgrade, the site is working harder to do just that, feeding users an MSN Web search bar on selected pages along with links to MSN e-commerce services. Hotmail users are offered items such as airline tickets and music, software downloads, yellow pages listings, and gaming sites.
Hotmail also altered its servers with this week's upgrade but declined to comment on the changes. As Hotmail's service problems have persisted in recent months, frustrated users have speculated that Hotmail was having difficulty porting over from its original Sun Microsystems architecture to Microsoft's Windows NT platform. Hotmail has acknowledged that it plans to make the switch but has consistently declined to comment on the progress of those plans.
"We did make some back-end changes to prep for some future initiatives coming up down the road," said a Hotmail spokesperson. "[But it's] nothing we can comment on today."
On the front end, Hotmail amended its terms of service to penalize senders of unsolicited email, or spam, with a $5 per message fine.
"This clause serves as a deterrent to keep our service spam-free and will make it easier for us to pursue spammers," the spokesperson said.
Another security measure for those who share computers shields messages viewed by one user from others. Users can check a box on the log-in screen to make sure message pages expire from the cache when that user logs out.
A second feature announced today that was previously reported is "stationery" options that let users add graphics, fonts, and colors to messages.
Hotmail announced that it has surpassed 40 million registered accounts, presumably making it the world's largest email service. Competitor Yahoo Mail does not disclose its membership numbers. Hotmail claimed 30 million members in December.
With this week's series of upgrades, the Hotmail address book offers mapping and driving instructions, powered by Microsoft's MSN Expedia travel site. The service also added versions in French, German, and Japanese.
Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates has said he plans to add more desktop applications to MSN through Hotmail, such as file storage and calendaring.
Hotmail also said its founder and general manager, Sabeer Bhatia, has left the firm to pursue other interests. His replacement has not been named.