Hotmail: success and decline of the world’s first free Webmail

In the 90s, having an email address was enough to impress others. The “geeks” of the time gave up the email assigned by the Internet service provider to subscribe to a third-party provider. It is in this context that Hotmail experienced its golden age. Times have changed, service is no longer what it once was. Find out the whole story.

Hotmail, an idea born on campus

Like Facebook, Hotmail was born from the imagination of technology students. During their studies at Stanford University, Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia developed the prototype of what would become the “must to have” in electronic messaging. In 1995, the two friends pooled their savings to raise $4,000 to develop their project. The idea quickly attracted investors. A seed capital of $300,000 granted by Draper Fisher made it possible to launch it.

Hotmail was a symbol of freedom from access providers such as Moov or SFR. Released a day after the film “Independence Day” with Wil Smith, the platform takes its name from the HTML language that web page editors know very well. A pioneer in an unsaturated sector, the service includes an inbox that the holder can open on any computer connected to the Internet. With competitors, it must be done on a specific IP address.

The other advantage of Hotmail was the possibility of choosing the name yourself. Elsewhere it was automatically generated and it was just a lot less stylish. In short, the idea instantly won over a young clientele, not necessarily professional. The concept was innovative, even if the storage caps at 2 MB. For reference, Gmail currently allows 15 GB of online backup and Yahoomail is almost unlimited. It was a golden age where 100,000 subscribers signed up in 1 month.

The integration of Webmail into the Microsoft ecosystem

Microsoft considered acquiring Hotmail as early as 1997. At the time, the email service had 10 million subscribers under its belt. This international clientele already represents a quarter of the market. The leader in the sector was AOL (America Online). This provider had 12 million subscriptions to its portfolio. Regardless, Hotmail’s founders were in no rush to strike a deal with Bill Gates’ firm.

Sabeer Bhatia tells the Indian Express that he fears Microsoft’s monopolistic attitude. That said, the deal was signed with a transaction valued at $400 million. Which makes the two graduating from Stanford the first millionaires of the Internet era. Without wasting time, the Windows publisher integrated the newly acquired Webmail into its set of services called MSN. It was also a way to expand its market internationally.

A year before the new millennium, MSN Hotmail had 30 million users. Some 150,000 additional subscribers add to their ranks daily. The frenzy for “THE INTERNET” was happening through electronic messaging. Nearly 80% of those with an active digital life had an email address. In any case, MSN Hotmail had the merit of being free, reliable and accessible from everywhere.

Backdoor and Google’s arrival on the market

hotmail hacking

The success of MSN Hotmail quickly attracted hackers. Programmers proved how vulnerable the platform was as early as 1999. In the days of Pentium computers, it was possible for them to hack any account using the “eh” password. Although Microsoft was in denial, the breach quickly grew. Wired describes this security problem as one of the most important in the history of Web 2.0, still in its infancy. A similar incident was reported in 2001. Simply creating a vanity URL was enough to access someone else’s inbox.

Brute force attacks have also appeared. In search of performance, Microsoft launched Internet Explorer 6 and Windows XP. The Redmond firm was a leader in high technologies, but competitive pressure came from everywhere. In particular, there is the Netscape browser. As problems do not arise alone, the American company had to explain to the government regarding its abuse of position as a leader in operating systems.

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The real threat reared its head in 2004. In April of that year, Google launched the Gmail service. The project under test already offered 1 GB of storage. The entire service is free. Which gave Bill Gates’ team a tough time. It took them a few months of relentless development to reach 250 MB of capacity. The user could send an attachment whose maximum size is limited to 10 MB.

Windows Live has sounded the death knell

Windows Live Hotmail was developed in the summer of 2007. This platform faced the services of Gmail which continues to grow in scope. Google was developing other complementary offers in addition to being a powerful search engine. It was the beginning of the end for Webmail created by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith. Its administrators barely managed to make it a little faster than competitors, but it was in vain.

The speed of Windows Live Hotmail hasn’t wowed users that much. He was always behind compared to the others. Despite the fact that it became more reliable, it was not a resounding success. To counter Google’s offensive, the developers even linked it to the Mozilla Firefox and Chrome browser. The subscriber also has an integrated search engine called Bing.

Some interesting features were added to Hotmail in 2010. It was a year of big updates for the “Wave 4” system. Microsoft was able to finalize filters that are activated with one click. It was possible to clean the inbox with a few simple gestures. The new features have jostled with the integration of Exchange ActiveSync and scheduled tasks. SSL was finally enabled by default.

Rain of spam and big migration to

Hotmail has long suffered from its image as an outdated messaging service. Its offers had difficulty attracting true fans of new technologies. In addition, the platform is commonly taken over by spammers and mass mailing professionals. Microsoft even had to reserve the right to terminate any account that went against its anti-spam policy. It was not a solution to the spam messages that flooded inboxes.

Simply being associated with Hotmail was a problem for many users. To remedy this situation, Microsoft offers Outlook. This alternative enjoys a better image. According to Brian Hall, the boss of Windows Live, this platform had a reputation for being more professional. Since then, efforts have been focused on, the beta version of which was released in the summer of 2012. The refined interface brings a touch of modernity.

Subscribers have the choice of keeping an address or migrating to In any case, some 10 million subscriptions were recorded in just two weeks. In 2013, 400 million Outlook accounts were active compared to 300 million for Hotmail at a time when everything was going well for the Webmail service.

The era of instant messaging and Skype

Microsoft Outlook. com enjoys success with new features added on a regular basis. Interest in the service peaked with the launch of Skype. The public also appreciates the support for IMAP as well as third-party add-ons. The publisher even tried Outlook Premium, a paid version. This commercial failure forces the Redmond firm to integrate the offer into Office 365.

It didn’t take long for Hotmail’s latest heir to encounter difficulties. The security flaws were demonstrated by hackers in 2019. The hacker in question impersonated a customer relations agent to access his victims’ accounts. This minor incident forces Microsoft to review its copy. The firm has closed the gap and is at the same time launching a dark mode to avoid eye fatigue.

Currently, any connection to a Hotmail account is redirected to This platform is compatible with all types of addresses launched during the life of the Webmail service. @hotmail, @outlook, @live, @passport or @msn, there is something for everyone. Moreover, Internet users can freely choose one of these endings to open an account. That said, email tends to lose its interest in favor of other communication channels. In addition to Skype, a whole range of videoconferencing and instant messaging tools appeared during Covid19.