It may seem as though it's always been around, but Hotmail is only just about to turn 14 years old. It wasn't the first webmail client, but it was the first one to make an impact, being free and available to anyone who wanted to sign up for it.
Before webmail clients such as Hotmail came along, if you wanted to chat to someone your options were essentially the telephone or face to face. Geeks were already creating Usenet groups and means of reaching out to each other in an organic way, much like today's social networks, but most of us wrote letters for our personal communications. These days, most of us can barely function without an email address and the ability to access it whenever we like.
Back at the dawn of webmail, many of us routinely fell foul of Hotmail's strict rule that if you didn't access your account for 30 days, you clearly didn't want it – and were locked out. Eventually, Microsoft saw sense and upped this to 90 days but, by then, email had become so entrenched in most of our lives that the idea of going three days – let alone three months – without checking your inbox seemed absurd.
At first, being able to get online to access our inboxes was a bigger concern than finding dodgy messages in there, but that soon changed. By February 2006, 96 percent of all email traffic directed at Hotmail accounts was spam or 'grey mail' – the newsletters and marketing messages you signed up to once but don't want to see every time you check your inbox. Grey mail isn't spam because it's not unsolicited – you agreed to receive it – but it all adds up to a mountain of missives sitting in your inbox, hiding the messages you actually want to read.
Microsoft says grey mail is the next big challenge for email. Its SmartScreen solution involves automatic management of our inboxes, and not just Hotmail inboxes either: Microsoft makes a virtue of the fact that the same SmartScreen security and filtering is applied to webmail as to its Outlook, Exchange and enterprise products. This learns how we deal with our emails and tries to pre-empt our reaction to messages from certain people or companies. Eventually, it will be able to do your filing for you, leaving just the emails you want to read.
And if that sounds a little Orwellian, Microsoft is keen to reassure you. Walter Harp, director of Hotmail and Windows Live, told us that the firm doesn't scan the body of emails to interpret their meaning, as Gmail does. However, Harp didn't completely reject the idea. "Webmail services that provide any degree of adequate spam protection will machine-detect elements of a mail to assign it a probability rating of being either legitimate, spam, or somewhere in between," he conceded.
Big Brother is watching you
These days, it seems, we expect our data to be monitored, even if it's stored on our hard drive. From ISPs being allowed to monitor the content of what we download using our broadband connections to Gmail serving up context-based adverts based on the words in our communications, data filtering and reaction to our actions is already happening. It may be benign, but judgements about what we write and what we do with the messages we receive are made all the time. We outline other ways in which we're spied on in our Tech secrets exposed feature, in the August issue of PC Advisor - on sale today.
Meanwhile, we also look at how Microsoft is using subtle tricks and context-based menus – again based on user actions – in its brand-new Office 2010 suite.
All these developments make our everyday tasks that bit easier to accomplish, but they also seem to make our words slightly less our own.
Pick up a copy of the August issue of PC Advisor to read all about it.