IDG News Service - Microsoft is set to begin rolling out the latest enhancements to its Hotmail Web mail service, with an aim to reduce clutter and make it easier to send photos and handle Office documents.
Microsoft is taking a clear shot at Google's success with its online Docs service by making a Web-based version of Office available from within Hotmail's Web interface that allows use of widely used document formats such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
The latest version of Hotmail will let users open and modify those document types within the browser with no additional software to download, said Dharmesh Mehta, director of product management for the company's Windows Live business. For richer document graphics, users will need to install a plugin for Silverlight, Microsoft's multimedia application.
Google has done a good job of integrating Gmail and Docs, but the service lacks the capability to faithfully convert Office documents, Mehta said. Google hasn't fully implemented the specifications Microsoft has published for its Office suite, he said. That's a problem, Mehta contended, since the vast majority of documents that are exchanged via e-mail are Microsoft formatted.
Hotmail users will be able to store documents using Microsoft's SkyDrive online storage and set permissions that allow for collaboration on the same document, Mehta said.
It's essential for Microsoft to rework its profitable Office franchise into a mix of free offerings, such as the latest integration with Hotmail, along with the more advanced versions of Office it sells, said Clive Longbottom, service director and business process analyst with Quocirca.
Consumers are less likely these days to purchase Office, as the free Works package ships on most PCs, and companies can allow their employees to use a copy of Office at home. But securing the consumer market is essential to keeping control over the office productivity software market, Longbottom said.
"They have to be worried about what happens in the consumer space," Longbottom said. "If consumers really do take to Google Docs, it is a real big issue for Microsoft."
The company is also leveraging SkyDrive to make it easier to share photos. Users frequently encounter problems with attachment limits either on the sending or receiving side, Mehta said.
Microsoft is skirting around that problem by automatically creating a SkyDrive folder with photos as someone sends an e-mail with photo attachments. Rather than attaching multimegabyte photos with the message, Hotmail will instead send a thumbnail of the photos while the full-size photos are sent to SkyDrive.
Users can then opt to see the photo within a new photo viewer built inside Hotmail or download a zip file with all of the photos. If a Hotmail user receives a group of photos in an e-mail, Hotmail will display thumbnails and then allow a larger view of the photo with the built-in viewer.
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