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Hotmail makes sign-in changes, can't please everyone

Stephen Gillies, editor

The Windows Live Hotmail sign-in page is in the news this week, with subtle changes to browser auto-complete behaviour to provide wider browser compatibility for Firefox, Safari, Chome and Opera. User reviews are mixed.

"For the recent change to 'keep me signed in,' our goal was to simplify the options, ensure consistent behavior across browsers and platforms, and make it faster and easier for you to get straight into your inbox." explained Microsoft Group Program Manager for Windows Live ID, Eric Doerr.

The need for change was highlighted by comments on the Inside Windows Live blog site. 

"we’ve received a lot of negative feedback on the old user tile login experience, from bugs to design flaws to the fact that it only worked only in IE." Doerr explained. Inside Windows Live blog commentators are certainly active, within a couple of hours of the announcement comments were already being made describing how other webmail services work and why the change is a good or a bad thing.

One of the world's largest email providers, it is in Hotmail's interest to find a happy medium for its more than 360 million active users. By comparison research firm Return Path suggested gmail ended 2010 with approximately 193 million users but that number has clearly accelerated with the addition of google+ and the rise in android handsets over the last year which push users towards an Google-heavy Internet experience.

The Hotmail team focused on two specific use cases:

  • Individuals and families who use a single PC and juggle multiple accounts, but who don't want to use separate Windows accounts
  • Individuals who use one primary account and want their user name remembered but not their password

The change adds an attribute to the email address input box on the login page which affects how the browser uses the autocomplete function. While this function is often off by default (Internet Explorer 9 ships with autocomplete off), assuming the user has enabled autocomplete the form will automatically fill previously entered email addresses for you as you type, or you can hit the down arrow on your keyboard to see the full list and select the account you want.

For many families and individuals with a shared PC, this change will mean they will each have their user name remembered, and individuals who use one or more accounts but don’t want their password remembered will be happy as well. 

For security, Hotmail chose not to remember passwords for multiple accounts to keep multiple users on the same computer from ending up in each other’s inboxes. This is a good thing, particularly in the case of Internet cafes and multi-user public Internet kiosks.

Hotmail are rolling out the change over the next week to a large network of front end servers. An update will appear on the Inside Windows Live blog site once the change has been completed on 100% of Microsoft Hotmail servers.

Hotmail login

It's great to see the Hotmail team trying to improve login functionality for one of the oldest webmail environments on the Internet. Microsoft may be feeling the impact of Google's aggressive tactics in the webmail market, a post on the official TechNet Microsoft site claimed recently that there were '15 insanely cool things' most users may not know about Hotmail.

These included the fact that the interface had changed over the last six years, that it's faster than gmail in 'some cases' and that you can disable the conversation mode if you hate it. 

Some Hotmail features do stand out. Hotmail now supports a number of the mouse and keyboard shortcuts you would expect. Some keyboard shortcuts (like # to delete a message) have even been imported from other webmail environments to ease migration. Our favourite shortcut is F7 to Check Spelling, which provides the following helpful tip rather than actually checking spelling.

Check Spelling (use your browser)

New features attempt to bring the webmail client closer to an Outlook experience. The 'sweep' function allows a user to easily deal with emails from a particular sender and to create rules within the webmail environment. Microsoft is also slowly integrating the webmail experience with other Microsoft products, such as Microsoft's 25Gb-for-free SkyDrive.

According to the Windows Live help site, using the Insert -> Photos tab users can include an entire holiday's worth of photos by automagically uploading those photos to SkyDrive and providing the recipient links to the photos, instead of attaching them directly the email. Documents created within Microsoft's cloud environment and even the outcome of Bing! searches can also be included in emails.

Some functionality isn't available in all locations, and there continues to be a heavy reliance on Silverlight for advanced functionality.