Hotmail was originally named HoTMaiL, referring to the fact that it was email on the web, in HTML. It was a good idea (though not the first) and very successful. The company sold out to Microsoft a few years back, leaving its employees in pretty favorable financial status. Nowadays its best use is as a patsy when filling in email fields on forms at sites you know will spam you.

Hotmail (Internet, software): A free Web-based e-mail service now owned by Microsoft Corporation. A fine example of viral marketing. It grew its subscriber base from zero to 12 million users in only 18 months - faster than any other company in any industry in history, and with a budget of only $50,000. It did so by including "P.S. I love you. Get your free email at" at the bottom of every email sent. Later it was changed to be less endorsing by removing "P.S. I love you." Hotmail became the largest e-mail provider countries like Sweden and India, without any marketing there.

Today there are many Hotmail clones but it is still popular as a free e-mail provider.

HotMail is a seriously wack web mail service owned by Microsoft, and used by them as bait to assimilate unwitting souls into the .NET Passport programme. It has recently (in the last year or two) been rebranded MSN Hotmail and decked out in livery stolen from Sun's Forte for Java development environment. Hotmail is notoriously insecure, and has been cracked in spectacular fashion at least once (see above writeups). A Hotmail account is also a magnet for spam, some of it from Microsoft themselves (which you can't block).

Hotmail subjects you to between one and five centre-page advertisments before you can view your inbox, and after you perform any operation. Microsoft also use Hotmail as a crutch for their demonstrably inferior IM software, MSN Messenger, which is otherwise incapable of retaining offline messages.

I personally use Netscape's WebMail instead of Hotmail, mainly because it's less graphics-heavy, and doesn't print your password in plain text in its redirect URL. (You mean you didn't notice that...?) Hotmail's terms of use are pretty fucking hairy as well. It is probably a bad idea to correspond with the Patent Office via Hotmail.

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.

Well.. Almost.

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.

Hotmail: Maintaining the status quo

So, jaggederest's crack is old and SharQ definitely has the facts firmly crooked. Some people don't like Microsoft and that's just fine, but that's no reason to avoid being right. For starters, advertisers did like the large customer base they could target for their newsletters but what they didn't like was that there was no way to verify that a user's information was true, nor were Hotmail or any of the other web-based email companies providing accurate statistics on how many newsletters were actually delivered and who out there was actually reading them. A company cannot make much money off advertisements when they can't tell their client how many people are actually reading their ads.

Does Sharq really believe things started to go wrong when Microsoft bought Hotmail? Oh sure, like some small-time internet start-up will really have any measure of standards compared with a company like Microsoft. Okay, so Microsoft's standards for excellence and security and trustworthiness are all pretty low, but think about it. This is Microsoft. When they screw up, there are thousands of geeks with nothing better to do than point it out.

During that time SharQ says nothing changed, a lot was changing. The code was being rewritten and the servers were being updated. Why? Well, because as he notes later, the number of users jumped from 9 million to over 130 million people actively using it everyday and the original backend for Hotmail simply could not handle that kind of load. Microsoft was buying machines, improving and standardizing code and running Hotmail through QA for the first time ever. As for the rumors about spam increasing because Microsoft sold the lists, why would they do that when they can sell these advertiser subscriptions and make more money off of that? The truth is that the user base was increasing by hundreds of thousands of people every day and spammers realized "Hey, JohnSmith isn't available as a hotmail user name, nor is JohnSmith110. That means that I can send mail to JohnSmith1 through JohnSmith110 and probably hit 100 users at least. I can do this with every name in the phone book and most words in the dictionary." And thus Hotmail because a major target for spam. A whole lot of English words and phrases were taken. Almost every name in the phone book is taken. Combinations of letters and numbers can be tried at little or no expense to the spammer with a huge return. If you don't believe me, create an account at hotmail with completely random letters and numbers mixed together and you'll get next to no spam at that account, versus 50-100 messages a day in one with just your first name.

See, here's the rub. It costs more money for Hotmail to store spam sent to 100 million users than any conceivable return from an advertiser. Why would they sell their own user lists when they will have to spend money to store the spam sent to those accounts? As for spamming the accounts themselves in order to get people to upgrade to their premium service, all you have to do is look at the spam at other large email providers and you know that hotmail isn't the only one being targeted more and more these days. 70% or more of the mail received at Hotmail each day is spam and Hotmail is taking more aggressive steps to combat it. They started with a junk mail filter and added 'levels' so that users can keep anything but mail from people in their address book from reaching their inbox and utilize a junk mail folder to catch the spam. Consider the number of people (at $50k and up a year) who must be working on fighting spam at the company. Consider $20 a year. How likely is it that Microsoft is spamming the users themselves with math like that?

Now we reach the issue of MSN Hotmail. Like all businesses, Microsoft was trying to make money off of Hotmail. Originally, Hotmail had a poor design and even worse business plan. Even if it did cost just $50,000 a year to run originally, by the time Microsoft bought it that was no longer the case. Over 130 million users and hundreds of thousands signing up each day, over 1.5 BILLION emails coming in each day, terabytes of data that need to be handled each day and pedabytes stored and all of the people needed to keep it running. Around this time, Microsoft sees Altavista and Yahoo! are both planning to charge their users for extra space, so they jump on the bandwagon. They see AOL doing so well and say to themselves "hey, if only we could turn just a small percentage of our current users into MSN customers, we'd be doing fantastic!" so Hotmail becomes part of MSN and charges for the same services those other companies charge for (though, I must point out to SharQ that virus scanning doesn't look like it will only be for the premium user accounts). Hotmail was indeed the last of the major free web-based email providers to do so. So can you really say it was simply the purchase of Hotmail by Microsoft which introduced these changes, or was it the dot com bust and the market?

Finally, reliability. Maybe four years ago the service was unreliable and emails disappeared into nothing, but the uptime lately is over 99% compared with day-long outages in the 90s. Want to know a secret? When service was unreliable at "Hotmail" 6 years ago, no one cared, but when that same service was just as unreliable, but now it was owned by Microsoft, everyone started caring and pointing and saying, "Look! See how unreliable Microsoft is?!" This forced Microsoft to improve reliability for the service. The irony is that when the service was less stable and people were pointing fingers, it wasn't running on Windows.

For the record, I'm in no way implying that Hotmail runs only on Windows ATM...

When Microsoft® bought the service Hotmail was running qmail on unix®. Naturally they wanted to get it up and running Microsoft Exchange™ as soon as possible (and some folks were quick to point out that the site continued to run qmail).

The new owner quickly tried this plan and we presume they found that Exchange was not up to the task - Hotmail had been stable up to that point and the site immediately went down.

For several months the site continued to process traffic with qmail, however with the identifying banners turned off, but a cursory look at the details verified that the servers were still unix and the behavior was still qmail.

Within a few months they had succeeded in moving the site to NT servers running exchange, but it was not the cakewalk that had been expected.

My personal email archive shows Hotmail service 2 years post the MS acquistion of the service still using qmail headers through July 15, 2000.

Hotmail: The Spam Magnet!

Note: Throughout this experiment no newsletters were subscribed to and the address was only released to a select group of friends.

I set up a little experiment to reveal the truth behind the Hotmail Spam fiasco. Basiacally, Microsoft has been accused numerous times of deliberately releasing its users emails so that companies could send "friendly advertisements", i.e. Spam. So I decided to check it out.

I made a new email with the address, I did not choose to be added to the Hotmail Member Directory, the Internet White Pages or to share my names/email on any registration forms. I did not sign up for any newsletters, and once I activated it I immediately logged out and did not log back in for a week. After I logged in for the first time, I deleted all emails found and logged back out, not logging in for another week, here are my results so far:

After logging back in the second time, I once again deleted all emails and logged out. This time, I went to my My Real Box email address and sent one email to the Hotmail address. After a week I once again logged back in, deleted all emails and logged back out. Afterwards, I told all my friends of the address and asked them to send emails to it as if it was my normal adress. Here are my results for the next two weeks:

  • Week Three: 26 Non-legitimate Emails, 1 Legitimate Email
  • Week Four: 52 Non-legitamate Emails, 19 Legitimate Emails, 2 Hotmail Staff Emails

By this stage Hotmail was now warning me that I was exceeding my mailbox limit, I ignored the warnings and deleted all emails once again. This time I began sending emails out from the Hotmail address, while my friends continued to send emails. After a week of sending two emails a day, I deleted all emails and then stopped sending all emails, and asked my friends to stop sending emails to the address. Here are my results for the final two weeks:

  • Week Five: 123 Non-legitimate Emails, 23 Legitimate Emails, 3 Hotmail Staff Emails
  • Week Six: 116 Non-legitimate Emails, 3 Hotmail Staff Emails

And here's all my results grouped together:

  • Week One: 7 Non-legitimate Emails, 0 Legitimate Emails
  • Week Two: 19 Non-legitimate Emails, 0 Legitimate Emails
  • Week Three: 26 Non-legitimate Emails, 1 Legitimate Email
  • Week Four: 52 Non-legitamate Emails, 19 Legitimate Emails, 2 Hotmail Staff Emails
  • Week Five: 123 Non-legitimate Emails, 23 Legitimate Emails, 3 Hotmail Staff Emails
  • Week Six: 116 Non-legitimate Emails, 3 Hotmail Staff Emails

So here we can see that in the first two weeks, where no email was indcoming or outgoing from myself or anyone I know, email, which was entirely Spam, filled the inbox. Once incoming email began, the Spam increased, and increased once again when outgoing email began. Finally, when all incoming and outgoing email ceased Spam reduced slightly, however this could be contributed to a simple variation in the amount of Spam sent by the companies rather than any other factor.

In conclusion, it is evident that even without sending or receiving emails, your email address is released and/or obtained by Spammers. It is also evident that once incoming and outgoing mail begins, more Spammers are able to obtain this address. Since it is the most likely scenario, my guess would be that either Microsoft releases these addresses or Spammers can quite easily trawl cyberspace obtaining addresses and selling them.

The address is still there for anyone who wishes to send an email to it and see if it exists, though it will most likely be cancelled soon as I am not longer checking it.

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