Microsoft aims to take the desktop 'Live'

Trying to outflank Yahoo and Google, Microsoft tests desktop hub for e-mail and other consumer services.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read
The battle over Web e-mail is spilling onto the desktop.

Microsoft started testing Windows Live Mail Desktop this week. It will let people manage their Hotmail--or e-mail from other accounts such as Yahoo Mail and Gmail from Google--offline without accessing a Web-based server. They still must connect to the Web to send and receive e-mail.

Although billed as an e-mail client, Microsoft's desktop software offers more than just a way to read e-mail. In its current form, the software also allows users to instant message their address book contacts, post a blog or read RSS feeds.

Web e-mail on the desktop

It makes sense for Microsoft to deliver this new desktop software, analysts say, because of its history on the PC, huge Windows user base and effort to build a network of ad-supported software. Microsoft has been looking for ways to support new free software through advertising.

That said, other big Web-based e-mail providers are saying they have no plans to follow suit. The proliferation of broadband connectivity and wireless Internet access makes Web-based e-mail easy and popular and makes adding desktop software to the mix a moot point, at least right now.

"What we hear is that our users really appreciate the 'anywhere access' of Web mail that we provide," said a representative for Yahoo, whose e-mail program, with nearly 226 million users worldwide, is the most popular. Hotmail and Gmail have 222 million and 52 million global users, respectively, according to ComScore Media Metrix. AOL has 66 million users worldwide.

Yahoo Mail customers can retrieve mail from other e-mail accounts through POP (Post Office Protocol) for free and can forward their Yahoo Mail to other accounts for a fee, she said. The beta test version of the new Yahoo Mail offers a desktop-like interface, with preview panes and integrated RSS reader, but it is still Web-based.

Google allows Gmail users to access their e-mail accounts on their desktops or mobile devices using any e-mail client via POP3, a Google spokeswoman said. She said the company had nothing new to announce.

AOL, meanwhile, started out offering its subscribers client-based e-mail software and later added Web-based e-mail. Users can get their AOL mail through any IMAP-compatible e-mail program, like Outlook or Eudora, but cannot retrieve e-mail from other accounts in their AOL Mail, a representative said.

In the United States, nearly 34 million people access AOL Mail through the desktop client while about 19 million access it through the AOL.com portal, she said.

Because the other e-mail services allow people to read their messages through other programs via POP3 and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), Microsoft's new desktop software can actually be used as a reader for those accounts as well.

Microsoft, in fact, has had fee-based services that allow offline access to Hotmail for a couple of years, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"So the concept isn't new. What is new is building a special purpose client for this and giving it away and supporting it through advertising," he said.

Microsoft's desktop e-mail move is part of a larger turf war among Microsoft, Yahoo and Google. In addition to rival Web sites and search engines, all three offer desktop search add-ons as well as toolbars. Other more advanced features include spell-checking, antiphishing features and Photo Mail, according to Microsoft's blog on the subject.

"To some degree, I think it is a response to the threat from Google and other online companies," Rosoff said. "Microsoft would prefer to blur the difference between Windows and these services. Certainly, Microsoft is leveraging one of their strengths"--the Windows operating system.

In addition to its connection to Windows Live Mail, the desktop program is also tightly linked to other Microsoft services, including its blogging and instant message tools. Windows Live Mail Desktop has a "Blog it" feature that lets users easily post messages directly to a blog. (Microsoft has in the works a plan to transition its MSN Spaces blog site over to the Windows Live brand.)

On the Messenger side, users of the software can see whether a mail contact is online and start a conversation via text IM or a voice chat. The desktop software is also tied to Microsoft's desktop search program to allow for indexing and quick search of messages.

Microsoft says paid-subscription customers who use Windows Live Mail Desktop won't see ads in the program, while free users will see some ads.

"The customers with a subscription account have the option to receive an experience with no graphical ads," a Microsoft representative said. "Customers without a subscription account should expect to receive ads in the client."