They grow up so fast: Spam magnet Hotmail turned 22 today

Hotmail turned 22 today having ushered in an era of web-based email, great swathes of spam and one of the greatest ever security cock-ups.

Launched on 4 July 1996, Hotmail offered “independence” (geddit?) from traditional ISP-based email, which required users download messages into a local reader. Hotmail allowed users to create their own email account and view their messages within the browser, without needing to be tied to a specific provider.

With a mighty 2MB of free storage, something that seemed absurdly generous in an era when PCs shipped with between 4 and 8MB of onboard RAM, Hotmail’s userbase grew rapidly to 8.5 million happy emailers (although it is not clear how many of those were examples of the burgeoning spam industry) and the mail-slinger soon attracted the attention of a certain software behemoth.

The arrival of Microsoft

Microsoft picked up the service in December 1997 for a purported $400m and found itself in the slightly awkward position of owning a hugely popular internet service that, er, didn’t actually use any of Redmond’s technologies and, horror of horrors, ran on a variety of UNIX-based systems.

The migration to Microsoft’s platform took a while, with an impossibly young Andrew Orlowski writing in The Register at the end of 2001 that Hotmail still ran on Unix. Windows Server 2000 dealt with front edge duties.

While Microsoft fiddled with Hotmail, competition arrived in the form of Yahoo! Mail in 1997 and the all-conquering GMail from Google in 2004. Hotmail, however, had other problems with which to contend.

Security? We’ve heard of it…

A security flaw, that could only be described as “catastrophic”, emerged in 1999. Wannabe hackers were able to access pretty much any account, knowing only the user’s Hotmail handle. 2001 saw more security snafus, with hackers able to retrieve messages from another users mailbox. El Reg gave it a go and found that, yep, it was worryingly simple to do.

Apple, of course, showed the world in 2017 how to do security holes properly, with its magical “root” feature, aimed at saving users from having to bother with passwords.

Rebranding, migration and the end of the road

As GMail rolled its tanks onto Hotmail’s lawn, Microsoft tinkered with rebrandings and redesigns seeing the venerable website folded into the MSN family and then renamed Windows Live Hotmail in 2005.

In 2012 the service became known as Outlook.com, leveraging the branding of the email component of Microsoft’s ubiquitous office suite.

By 2013, Microsoft had shifted all 300 million active Hotmail accounts to its shiny new web mail client, whether they liked it or not.

2016 saw more tinkering, with users eventually moved to shiny new infrastructure.

While Microsoft played with Hotmail, Google’s GMail juggernaut rolled on, reporting over 1 billion users at last count, compared to the relatively paltry 500 million claimed by Outlook.com.

Both services are heavily integrated with their respective parents’ application suite stuff, making exact counts difficult to ascertain, and both “free” incarnations are now more an introduction into a wonderful world of premium subscriptions than the liberation first envisaged by the creators of Hotmail.

However, with many of us likely still having a Hotmail lurking around, let us take a moment to raise a toast to the venerable trailblazer and all the now defunct clones it spawned. And then go back to GMail. ®

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