Hotmail: It’s fast. Is that enough?

Today over at Inside Windows Live, Dick Craddock walks us through some recent work, just released, on Hotmail, citing some impressive speed improvements.  By modernizing Hotmail to make better use of caching, pre-loading, and asynchronous operations, speed has been significantly improved:

Hotmail Dec 2010 Hotmail June 2011
Open message 3.3 seconds 0.18 seconds
Delete message 3.1 seconds 0.14 seconds
Compose new message 4.3 seconds 0.20 seconds

Very impressive stuff, and Microsoft has been doing some fine engineering work to make Hotmail, along with SkyDrive, much better.

This kind of work, led by Steven Sinofsky and focusing on the engineering, seems to be the new mantra of Windows Live.  Build good stuff, clean up what’s broken, focus on the engineering, and let the chips fall where they may.  “If you build it, they will come” seems to be a rallying cry for Windows Live these days, and we’re the first to applaud the engineering efforts.

However, there’s more than an engineering problem.  Here in the US, Hotmail has been a laughingstock for years, even before Gmail was released.  Offering 1gb of free storage (to Hotmail’s at the time 2mb), a new interface, and almost most importantly, a new name that was associated with “cool”, and “cutting edge”, Gmail in 2004 drew a line in the sand: “if you use Gmail you’re cool, if you use Hotmail, you’re not”.  As far as we can tell, that perception has lingered.

Microsoft recognized this, of course, and tried to change the Hotmail branding, beginning in 2005 and as a direct result of the introduction of Gmail. addresses were offered up ( even while botching their introduction, allowing back door early access to the best address names, and then never really following through with the rebrand), and even changing the name of Hotmail at one point in the “Kahuna” beta to “Windows Live Mail”.  At the same time, Microsoft worked to bring the engineering up to par, increasing the storage, rebuilding the back end from the ground up, and working to rebrand Hotmail as part of Windows Live.

That rebranding never took off, and Microsoft seems hesitant to push hard on the Windows Live brand (which had its own perception problems).  Hotmail and Messenger (and who knows how the branding will change with the introduction of Skype into the mix), these are the new watchwords.

By “pushing the brand”, we mean a lot more than a few slick commercials and some fancy Flash websites.  We’ve long believed Windows Live needed a champion within the company, a spokesperson and a symbol of why Hotmail, and Windows Live, is cool again.  We hoped at one time it would be Ray Ozzie, but the visionary lost out to the engineers, and really, he wasn’t cut out to be a spokesperson.  We don’t see anyone now filling that void.  When you see Steve Ballmer, do you think “Hotmail, ooh, cool!”  Or Steven Sinofsky?

Just as important as speed improvements, we think, Windows Live needs a renewed focus on “social engineering”, and that’s something it seems to sorely lack.  What is there about the new, fast, Hotmail that makes you “cooler” to use it?  Are your friends impressed?  Would you send out a resume or an important business document with a Hotmail address?  In other words, is “fast” enough?