Microsoft and Apple go gunning for Gmail

Microsoft is reportedly readying upgrades to its venerable Hotmail that will go live next week, while Apple is improving MobileMe mail. They're both taking the offensive against Google's domination of the cloud.

Microsoft will be unveiling an upgrade to Hotmail on Monday, says VentureBeat's Paul Boutin in an article posted Wednesday:

"Today, Microsoft unveiled its response to the rise of Google Docs for word processing, spreadsheets, and sharing, in the form of Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

Next week, Microsoft will unleash a new version of its category-leading Hotmail email service that carries the fight against Google from corporate IT departments onto the screens of the hundreds of millions of lone users and small teams who swear by Gmail."

VentureBeat speculates that that the upgrade will speed up Hotmail, offer threading and tagging of conversations and messages, improved mobile access, and integration with social networks.

I'm seeing indications from Microsoft that the announcement, if it happens, will be Tuesday rather than Monday.

Could a better Hotmail tempt you away from Gmail? Simon Mackie at WebWorkerDaily wants to know. He says the answer for him is no:

I actually still have a Hotmail account from way back, which I only now use as a spam trap, as well as for the few friends who resolutely refuse to update their email address books with my more recent contact info. The service has improved quite a lot over the past couple of years — the interface is much nicer and there’s some new functionality (search actually works, for example). But Gmail, to which I switched in 2005, is simply a far better email client, with a better, faster interface and more storage (no more deleting emails because I’d run out of space!). And it consistently receives neat little tweaks to keep it ahead of the pack."

Readers in the comment thread agree with Mackie. Someone signing his name as "TED" said: "I really dislike hotmail’s UI, and there’s almost something ghetto about giving anyone your address." But TED's not in love with Gmail either. "As for abandoning Gmail, let ‘em do one more stupid thing like automatically integrating Buzz again, and I’m gone. Not sure where, but gone."

Of course WebWorkerDaily's writers and readers are not Hotmail's target market. Nor are you and I. The target market is regular people who don't know much about computers, and don't want to know or need to know.

Apple announced a new open beta for MobileMe Web mail on Wednesday. It includes a widescreen view, similar to the email app on the iPad. The beta also provides server-based rules so you can keep your email organized on multiple client devices without having to set rules for each device, single-click archiving similar to Gmail's, a formatting toolbar, improved performance, and support for SSL connections for enhanced security.

I see these upgrades as table stakes for Microsoft and Apple. Any company that wants to be serious as a cloud vendor needs to have Webmail at least as good as Gmail. But good Webmail is not enough, because people are moving off e-mail for their most important communications, using texting and instant messages and social networks instead. To thrive in this decade, vendors need a superior, comprehensive suite of cloud applications.

Microsoft and Google are having a lovely spitting contest over their respective cloud strategies; both companies are strong and taking very different approaches. Apple, meanwhile, has a seriously deficient cloud strategy, but may be assembling pieces for a powerful cloud platform.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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