NEW YORK - I signed up for my first Hotmail account in 1996 when a tech-savvy friend told me it would be part of the wave of the future.
"Imagine it, this e-mail address travels with you," he said. "You don't even have to be on your home computer." I quickly signed up and have been hooked ever since.
But somewhere along the line, it seemed as if Microsoft Corp. just stopped caring about the free Web-based e-mail service it bought in 1997. The once-groundbreaking Hotmail quickly became a dinosaur to feature-rich rivals from Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.
For years, loyal Hotmail users like me - unwilling to give up our longtime e-mail addresses - waited patiently for Bill Gates and company to catch up.
Enter Microsoft's Hotmail overhaul - code-named "Kahuna," so-named to reflect what the company considers a big wave of innovation. For now, though, Kahuna falls short.
About 1 million of Hotmail's 230 million active users are now using a "beta" test of Kahuna, formally known as Windows Live Mail. The product ties into the rollout of Microsoft's Live brand, which will one day integrate multiple pieces of software in one bundle for users to access over the Web.
With the facelift, Hotmail looks much more like Microsoft's Outlook desktop software than a traditional Web product.
The design features three panes: one to view the sender and subject lines, one to get a sneak peek at the e-mail's content, and another that lists your mail folders, calendar, contacts and other features.
Live Mail also has features to drag and drop messages into folders, auto-detect whom you are e-mailing, check spelling as you type and change the color scheme and layout.
This is a major advance from Hotmail's current setup, which only lists the sender's name and the subject line down the page. Deleting an e-mail, or sending it to a folder, requires the almost-anachronistic step of checking off a box and using a drop-down menu to direct it. Running a spell check was both confusing and sluggish.
One of Live Mail's strongest features is its alert for potential "phishing" attacks. The "infobar" appears red when a message is potential spam or a phishing scheme and green when it comes from someone already in your contact list.
All really are powerful features - but truly innovative a few years ago. I would have liked to see some true breakthroughs that would make my friends using other free mail services turn green with envy. There was no ability to tab through e-mails as you can with Yahoo. I missed the unique way Google's Gmail tracks e-mails as conversations.
Microsoft also has overhauled its messenger service, packing a number of new features. Live Messenger has video and voice options, a strong file-sharing mechanism, joint access to mapping services and the ability to share search results in the middle of an instant-messaging session.
They are all interesting, but hardly innovations that move the industry - or the culture - forward.
Although the offerings on tap work, they left me wondering if I'd ever use even half of the bells and whistles for Mail and Messenger. Looking at a streamlined service like Gmail makes me wonder if less might be more. Google's service combines instant messaging and e-mail on one screen, making navigation easier and speedier.
Another drawback for Live Mail: the two flashing, multicolored advertisements I saw across the top and right-hand side of the screen (the ads disappear if you pay for a premium account).
In a day when Google is trying to be unobtrusive with targeted ads, Microsoft's layout seemed distracting, clunky and bloated. Yahoo and AOL have banner ads, too, but those seem placed with users in mind, without taking too much of the screen.
Live Mail doesn't automatically check for new messages like its rivals, nor does it work in competing browsers - just Microsoft's own Internet Explorer. This is expected to change down the pike.
In fact, before it's released to the general public, Microsoft is preparing to make numerous changes to Live to tie the different products together. For instance, a contacts-management product will be able to update the separate address books in Live Mail and Live Messenger simultaneously.
The software company is also developing a free desktop program that will connect the various services. The program will even let you gather e-mail from competing services.
But while Microsoft irons out the kinks in Live Mail, users who like the traditional Hotmail view would be well advised to stick with it for the time being.
The beta version of Live Mail and Live Messenger will certainly bring you up to date - but don't expect anything that will revolutionize the way you communicate.
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