After several years of virtual stagnation, Web-based email solutions jumped to life again last year when Google announced that its free GMail service would offer users 2 GB of email storage space. For established companies like Microsoft/MSN and Yahoo, which both raced to match Google's offering and figure out new ways to compete, GMail was like a wakeup call. Since then, virtually everyone offering Web-based email has dramatically improved their products.

On the Hotmail front, the improvements were pretty low-key. Microsoft raised the default storage allotment to 2 GB, as per Google, but still requires customers to purchase Hotmail Plus at $19.95 a year to access the service via Outlook Express, Outlook, or other POP3-based email clients. And when Microsoft's MSN unit unveiled its so-called Wave 10 product line--MSN Messenger 7.0 (see my review), MSN Spaces (see my review), MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search (see my review), and so on--the one curious thing that was missing was a major Hotmail upgrade. After all Hotmail is arguably MSN's core service.

Well, fear not. Microsoft and MSN have big plans for Hotmail. The company has been working for the past several months on a next generation Web mail solution that codenamed Kahuna and currently goes by the nondescript name "Mail Beta" (thus, I'll continue to simply call it Kahuna). It will likely replace Hotmail when it's released in the first half of 2006, though MSN representatives I've spoken with won't discuss it in that way, discuss branding, or allude to how it will be marketed. No matter. Let's just assume for argument's sake that Kahuna is the next Hotmail. Here's what's happening.

History of Hotmail

The product of two individuals, Hotmail was founded in 1995 and launched in 1996 as "HoTMaiL" (notice that the capitalized letters spell HTML, the language of the Web). The idea was that users should be able to access email from anywhere in the world, using any Web browser, thus freeing people from the siloed experiences typically offered then by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe.

By the end of 1997, Hotmail boasted over 8 million subscribers and the service was purchased by Microsoft for use by its MSN unit. Officially recast as MSN Hotmail, the service took off immediately, garnering tens of millions of subscribers as Microsoft localized Hotmail for various languages worldwide. Today, Hotmail has over 200 million subscribers, supports 17 languages, has customers in virtually every country on earth, and is one of the most successful Web-based services on the planet. It is the largest free email service in the world.

Hotmail was so successful, in fact, that Microsoft tied its Passport Web authentication scheme to the service, ensuring that everyone who started a Hotmail account was, in fact, also creating a Passport identity. While Microsoft has since scaled back its plans for Passport somewhat considerably--it was once seen as a federated authentication service that would cross through both corporate and consumer spaces--its combination with Hotmail has ensured that Passport will, in fact, continue well into the future.

As Hotmail moved into the 21st century, its architectural foundation began showing its age. Microsoft did what it could over the years to keep the service up to speed with ever-changing user needs and expectations, but the company realized some time ago that it would have to start over from scratch to create a next-generation Hotmail version that was scalable, reliable, and functional for the next 10 years. That project, codenamed Kahuna, is now being tested as a future Hotmail replacement.

"We've very clearly outgrown the original design and architecture of the Hotmail service," Kevin Doerr, who oversees Hotmail and new Web mail experiences at MSN, told me during a briefing recently. "Actually, that happened a while ago, and we're catching up to it now. We recognize that we have eeked out every performance gain that's possible with the current architecture. It's time to rethink the architecture, design, and the service itself, and rethink the market."

Big Kahuna: Microsoft's next generation Hotmail

MSN describes Kahuna as an incubation project that has been built from the ground up utilizing the latest Web technologies, such as AJAX, a Web application architecture that combines HTML/Dynamic HTML (DHTML) with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), XML, and other technologies. These technologies are used to emulate the type of experience users get with traditional Windows-based email applications, such as Outlook and Outlook Express, but in a browser-based Web environment. Too, MSN has collected the experiences Microsoft has had creating various email solutions, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Exchange Server, and Outlook Web Access (OWA) to ensure that Kahuna is as elegant and powerful as possible.

"Kahuna is the rebirth of Web mail," Doerr told me. "It's enabled by a recent tipping point in the use of more modern browsers that support DHTML and XML. A lot of users need to be at Internet Explorer (IE) 5.5 or above or equivalent to take advantage of these features. In the last year or so, that's happened. So we're going to start deploying these technologies."

One factoid that might interest Mac fans: 6 people who previous worked on the Entourage team at Microsoft's Mac Business Unit (MacBU) are now working on Kahuna. Doerr says that their unique perspectives have brought a new vigor to the Hotmail team, and that Kahuna will be a better service as a result.

At a very basic level, Kahuna will address the ten most often-needed scenarios as described by users. "These aren't just standalone email needs, either," Doerr told me. "We're addressing the needs of mobile users, [instant messaging] users, bloggers, and SMS as well." Interestingly, the feedback Microsoft got from users was startlingly simple: They wanted Microsoft to get the basics right first. That means a faster, simpler, safer, and more reliable system. They wanted to get into their Inbox quickly, so they could parse email and react to important messages. They wanted integration with the other Web services they use every day, and wanted to share things like attachments and photos more easily. "This is just really basic stuff," Doerr said. "We knew we had to step back and rethink the whole thing."

The result is a Web-based email client that should be instantly recognizable to Outlook and OWA users. It features a traditional three-pane user interface--for now, I'm told; future versions will sport radically different UIs--with core modules such as Mail, Calendar, and Contacts. A simple Today page will eventually serve as an Outlook Today-like starting point, though today (ahem) it simply provides beta information to testers (Figure). And while services integration is still to come, a simple MSN Search box hints at where this is all going.

In the next few sections, we'll take a quick tour of Kahuna's modules and major new features.

Kahuna Mail

The instantly recognizable Kahuna Inbox appears when you click the Mail tab (Figure). There are three vertical panes, as in Outlook 2003, for mailboxes, current mailbox view, and the reading pane. That latter bit is handy: While it's technically designed to provide a preview of the currently-selected email, you can often read an entire email there thanks to its vertical orientation. Nice.

One unexpected bit of functionality: You can drag and drop items in the UI. For example, you could create a new mail folder called Mailing Lists and then manually drag email into that folder, directly from the message list (Figure). Sadly, you can't configure Mail to automate this process, as you can in standalone email clients like Outlook. You can, however, multi-select items, as you might in a traditional email client, and then drag and drop the entire selection as needed (Figure).

You can also right-click a message in the message list to see options for replying, forwarding, marking as read or unread, deleting, printing, and viewing source (Figure). "These are the kinds of things that make it more like a traditional email client," Doerr told me. "We worked hard to maintain the client feel." With few exceptions, elsewhere in the UI, a right-click brings up the normal browser right-click menu.

As with Outlook 2003, Kahuna sports an Info Bar that highlights safety concerns when needed. Sadly, the Info Bar is beyond subtle: It's located right at the top of the Reading Pane but is not called out in any way (Figure). I recommend coloring the Info Bar yellow, orange, or red, depending on the type of warning its trying to display. For example, when I received email from an unknown sender, the Info Bar communicated that, but in so subtle a fashion that it'd be very easy to miss. As in Outlook 2003, the Kahuna Info Bar will be used to help combat phishing attacks, virus attachments, and spam. You can use it to report and delete unwanted email, or allow trusted senders.

In addition to the Info Bar, Kahuna Mail also blocks pictures and links in email from unknown senders by default. You can enable the display of this content with a single mouse click.

The New Mail display uses the highly-rated rich text editor that Microsoft debuted in MSN Spaces (Figure). This is nice, assuming you want to send rich text email (I prefer plain text, frankly), and gives MSN users a certain amount of consistency between services. I'd like to see Microsoft offer New Mail in a separate window, however, and let users configure it for plain text. When sending attachments, which is done sort of non-intuitively by selecting an Attach drop-down box that has only one options, Files, you get a standard File Open dialog. Attached files are scanned for viruses immediately.

There's no "Get Mail" button or whatever, making it unclear how one would manually check for new mail. You can simply re-click the Inbox selection, I guess, but I can't tell if that does anything. Kahuna does offer a hefty 2 GB inbox, which should answer the storage question once and for all. And though Doerr didn't provide many details, he did mention that non-abusive users would be able to go above 2 GB without paying for the privilege.

Mail also provides for a number of standard keyboard shortcuts. For example, you can open a selected message by hitting the ENTER key, or move to the next item by hitting the ] key. The inline search feature (not to be confused with the similar looking "Search the Web" function, provides speedy access to particular emails.

Kahuna Calendar

The Kahuna Calendar was only recently added to the service, and doesn't yet feature the wide range of new features found in Mail (Figure). It includes the new look and feel, a variety of view styles including a nice Print View for each view style that's designed for the printed page (Figure), and access to Tasks, reminders, and notes. As with Hotmail Calendar, you can share your Kahuna Calendar with other Passport users. Doerr tells me that MSN is working to integrate Kahuna with ICS-based Calendars, so you can subscribe to such things as local Little League schedules, professional sports schedules, and any of the many other things that are available to standards-compliant Web calendars. You can also add holidays and weather to the calendar if you'd like. Expect this feature to change the most dramatically before the final release.

Kahuna Contacts

As with Calendar, Contacts are a recent addition. Utilizing the three pane view found in Mail (Figure), Contacts offers contact groups, searching, single-click contact addition when sending an email to a non-contact, and even the auto-completion of contact names when writing a new email (Figure). "We're still in the early part of implementing contacts," Doerr said. "It's less than half done."

Schedule and timeline

Kahuna is being rolled out in phases. In the first phase, which just ended, MSN provided an early beta version of the service to 5000 testers, mostly Microsoft employees and trusted MSN Messenger 7.0 beta testers. During this phase, only core email functionality was available and MSN set its sites on feature development, prioritization, and bug testing.

In phase two, which began today (October 10, 2005), MSN is expanding the availability of Kahuna to 200,000 technology enthusiasts and general customers. The service will be made available to more languages and locales during this phase and Microsoft will begin scaling out Kahuna in anticipation of its wide scale launch. Microsoft says that the service will be made available to testers in the US, UK, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia during this phase.

In phase three, Kahuna will be expanded to even more general customers and MSN will work to integrate the service more seamlessly with other MSN services, such as MSN Messenger, MSN Search, and MSN Spaces. Microsoft expects to publicly launch Kahuna in the first half of 2006.

Since many Kahuna details are still up in the air, it's hard to say how the service will be branded and marketed, though I expect it to simply replace Hotmail at some point. Existing Hotmail users will be able to move to the Kahuna interface, by the way, without any disruption in the service. For the time being, MSN tells me that it will pursue an advertising-based model for Kahuna as it does for Hotmail, though it's likely that a paid version will eliminate ads and provide other unique features.

What's missing?

With the understanding that the currently available beta version of Kahuna is not finalized, there are a number of features I'd like to see incorporated before I'd considering using this service as my primary email. In addition to the issue I've raised throughout this preview, there is no way to automatically synchronize with Outlook or Outlook Express-based calendars, tasks, and so on. You can't set up the mail component to filter the view to just unread email, which seems like a pretty basic feature to me. And MSN really needs to implement user interface themes, so that customers can brand and modify the UI as they see fit. Even some basic color schemes would be appreciated: While I think that MSN's new white and ice blue color scheme is classy and clean, it's also a bit Spartan. Finally, I'd like to see some offline functionality offered as well.

I won't complain too much here because it's still early, and I know that Kahuna is going to improve in leaps and bounds over the next few months. It will be interesting to see how things change by the final release.

Conclusions

Kahuna is a huge improvement over Hotmail, Microsoft's current service, and GMail, the Google-owned service with which it is clearly competing. Offering the best functionality from Web-based offerings like OWA as well as even Windows-based email clients such as Outlook, Kahuna is surprisingly full-featured. On the other hand, it's still early in Kahuna's development, and I don't recommend that anyone switch their production email account over to this service quite yet. But if you're using Web-based email and are looking for the best experience, keep your eye on Kahuna. This is one fish that you just might want to land.