Hotmail - the internet "killer app" that went went down in flames
Why Hotmail became so popular
Hotmail was started as a free web-based e-mail service in 1996. It was not the first, not the best, not the fastest, not the easiest to use and not the most innovative service, but it quickly grew to become the biggest and most popular nonetheless.
1996 was well before the internet boom, and only very few people had internet access at home. However, libraries and universities had long offered its users access through Arpanet and other networks, and when the Internet seemed to be the new standard, it made sense to offer Internet to the users as well.
If you are familiar with internet email standards, you know that the POP standard pretty much requires you to store all your email on one particular computer, because the mailbox otherwise fills up really fast. The problem was - as mentioned - that not many people had their own computers hooked up to the internet.
The Internet grew big because of two killer apps; The world wide web (which most people, sadly, know as "the internet") and email. Later irc and other chat services, along with Napster and other file sharing services became the main killer apps, but email was always the key.
So - everybody wants an email address they can check at their local library, at their universities and schools, or at the other locations offering free (or at least cheap) internet access. Because most of these locations offered the web rather than email, web email seemed like a fabulous idea.
So, several services started to offer free email. Among these were WhoWhere, iName, Four11 and Hotmail. The common denominator of these services were that they were free, offered reasonable privacy, and they were available from any computer hooked up to the internet.
The Hotmail service was supported by advertising sales, and - quickly afterwards - by offering free newsletters to their users. To deliver these newsletters to the mailboxes, the service provider would take some money from the newsletter, which in turn was supported by advertising.
Quickly, hundreds of websites wanting a piece of the cake spawned. Strictly speaking, the technical level behind the email services is low - all you need is a huge web server (or a server cluster, rather) with a front-end (the nice-looking, user-friendly web page) and a secure database backend (accessing the pop, imap or proprietary protocol mailboxes), and you were good to go earn lots of money.
The reason why these types of email services were popular among advertisers were that the users had to register. This means that you could get a fairly exact picture of the demography of the users, thereby allowing for specifically targeted marketing.
In short: The users were happy because they got free email, the provider was happy because the advertisers gave them lots of money, and the advertisers were happy because they finally got a wet dream coming true: They knew exactly who watched their ads.
Things start going wrong
In 1998, Microsoft (who earlier had shrugged off the Internet as a waste of time) was eager to get into the market, and decided to go for the biggest provider there was - Hotmail. Per 1 st November 1998, Microsoft was officially the owner of Hotmail and the 9 million (!) mailboxes that existed on the Hotmail servers. The geek population was in distress.
Either because they were working on their strategy plans, or because Microsoft just did not know what to actually do with Hotmail, they left it alone for a while. Nothing changed, except for a small Microsoft logo showing up every here and there.
Almost at the same time that Microsoft took over Hotmail, reports (and experiences) started showing up in the media of a dramatic increase in spam to Hotmail accounts. I am not saying that these emails came from Microsoft, but the rumours of Microsoft releasing email list - against good money, of course - seem to make sense. At the same time, the service starts to "lose" emails into nothingness - mail that is sent does not arrive, and mail that is sent to a Hotmail mailbox vanishes into thin air. To my knowledge, neither Hotmail nor Microsoft has ever made an official statement on this phenomenon.
2002: Mo money, mo Hotmail.
In 2002, Hotmail has become MSN Hotmail, and has gotten a "nice" glossy design which (surprise, surprise) matches Microsoft's Windows XP design. At the same time, MSN announces that their POP service (the ability to get POP mailbox messages to your Hotmail inbox for free) would be a pay-only service. At the same time, Microsoft starts bombarding your message inbox with - yes - spam. As it were, Hotmail has become a free web based email with a limit of 2 MB per mailbox. If you want more storage space, you'll have to pay, and Microsoft loves to remind you of this service.
Usually, if you only get text-only emails, this 2 MB limit is more than enough. However, this is not the case when we talk about Hotmail, because of the massive amounts of spam that come crashing into your mailbox. If a mailbox is not cleaned out every 4-5 days or so, it will be "full", and you will not get any emails - the mails are bounced back to the sender.
But - kind as they are - Microsoft also offers a solution to the problem: Become a premium member! For only £19.99 per year, you can get the massive storage space of 10 MB, along with the ability to check your POP email, to prevent your account from expiring, virus scanning, and the possibility to receive emails with attachments of 1.5 MB.
Considering that you for the same price could set up your own domain, with about 10 mailboxes of 10 MB each, you do get the feeling that Microsoft is ripping you off.
Add this to the hacking scandal (see an earlier node) and the fact that Hotmail has become even more unreliable, the only conclusion must be that Hotmail - despite having meant a lot to a lot of people - has lost its touch rather severely.
Hotmail, Rest in Peace.