Microsoft Testing New Hotmail Interface

Microsoft's MSN business unit is trying to hook customers onto "Kahuna." Kahuna is codename for an upcoming version of Hotmail that will sport a new style of interface, automatic inbox refreshing and a preview pane that will enable Hotmail users to read and respond to e-mail without ever leaving their inbox.

Microsoft has reason to be testing such additions: Many of these features are already out of testing and in production among its competitors.

According to sources familiar with the upgrade, Kahuna is a limited beta that is not heavy on features as of yet. Its interface is known internally as "Wave 11" and is designed to be lightweight and "clean" for better performance. Further integration with MSN Spaces and Messenger is said to be forthcoming.

Very little emphasis will be cycled toward the calendar component of Hotmail in the initial phase.

Recognizing that it is behind in several key areas, Microsoft has engineered the next wave of Hotmail, allegedly referred to as the "competitive wave," in a methodical push to meet or exceed the competition.

In comparison to Hotmail, America Online recently unveiled an update to AOL Mail on the Web and introduced AIM Mail. Both services are derived from technology AOL acquired from Mailblocks in 2004.

In the competitive world of portal Web sites, providers often go tit for tat in an ongoing game of one-upmanship, but many of the features available from rivals are conspicuously absent in today's Hotmail.

Some of these advanced features include: natural drag and drop capabilities between folders; automatic inbox refreshing and real-time audible new mail notifications.

"Assuming Microsoft is working on Hotmail changes, they are necessary and a long time in coming," said Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox. "Hotmail is ancient, if counting by computing or dog years, with the service approaching its tenth anniversary next year. Some younger competing services offer more features -- some expected, like a preview pane -- that spotlight Hotmail's age."

Microsoft would not comment directly on Kahuna, but a spokesperson explained that, "The MSN Hotmail team is constantly exploring and internally testing new features as part of our ongoing investments in the service. Some initiatives will appear in future products and services, while others won't make it past the whiteboard."

"In any potential update, Microsoft's problem would be making changes without disturbing its legacy technologies or large user base. I wouldn't be surprised if any possible update proceeds modestly for the benefit of customers. Large ships steer slowly," Wilcox added.

Hotmail has an estimated 200 million users worldwide.

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