Email not dead as Microsoft reinvents Hotmail with active apps

29 Mar 2011

Microsoft is striving to reinvent email by placing Active Views technology inside what up to now were Hotmail messages consisting of static text and HTML. The software giant has formed alliances with LinkedIn, LivingSocial, Posterous, Netflix and Orbitz.

The company has revealed it has already served over 1bn emails with Active View technology ingrained that allows users to interact with content like YouTube videos, Flickr carousels, shipping notices and coupons.

In what is a sure sign Microsoft has no intention of abandoning email in a world awash with Twitter, Facebook and all manner of communications, the software giant is embarking on a journey to ensure email lives on with active apps ingrained in messages.

The software giant has formed an alliance with a cabal of household internet names, like Netflix, LivingSocial and LinkedIn, to turn emails into living events.

“Over 90pc of all email contains a link to some deeper content that isn’t being surfaced in the email, and we know from our research that for most of these messages, there are a few common responses – viewing a slideshow, playing the video, checking shipping status, or accepting an invitation,” Dick Craddock, group program manager, Hotmail explained.

“To help solve this problem, we created Active Views – a platform that reinvents email by making your inbox more interactive and helping you get tasks completed.”

Microsoft’s approach to Active Views is to categorise messages by sender and by content.

“For each type, we identify the most common things people do when they receive the email, and we work to bring this directly into the inbox. In some cases, we transform the message. For example, we can take a series of photo attachments and turn them into a slideshow. In other cases, we enable the email sender or website to bring their experience right into the inbox.

“We’ve created a sandboxed environment that allows partners to insert dynamic content that is up to date and interactive with common tasks through the use of JavaScript,” Craddock explained.

Microsoft began by focusing on the most popular kinds of email with with photos, videos, documents and shipping notifications, such as YouTube, Hulu, Flickr and FedEx.

“For those messages, we fetch the important content from other websites and let you engage with it in an Active View that appears at the top of the message. This lets us take an email with a text URL for a shared video, and instead of just showing dull text, let you watch the video without having to leave your inbox.

Email for the social age

“In traditional email with just a text link, the percentage of people clicking through is less than 10pc. With Active Views, customers are clicking on the video control in about 25pc of all email messages with a video. In fact, we’ve served over 1bn Active Views for photos, videos, documents and shipping notifications.”

Craddock explained the company is moving to the next stage by bringing in invitations, updates, ratings and deals.

“More and more services use email to let their members or customers know when something has happened, and most of these messages have a simple response – accept the invitation, comment on the photo, rate the movie. Now those actions happen right in your inbox, saving clicks and time, thanks to the work of partners like LinkedIn, Posterous, LivingSocial and Netflix.

Using the technology, LinkedIn messages become an opportunity to take actions and connect with others without having to leave the inbox, explained Moses Ting, design lead on communications products at LinkedIn.

“At LinkedIn, our mission is put the needs of our members first and to create products that help professionals be more productive and successful. Email is one of the many ways our members interact with LinkedIn and now with Hotmail’s Active View, we are adding increased functionality and efficiency without ever leaving Hotmail’s inbox,” Ting explained.

“With this interactive email technology, we’ve eliminated any extra steps normally required for professionals to stay connected via email.”

LivingSocial, an online discount coupon rival to Groupon, believes deals emails are turning into an opportunity to browse deals in real time, see how much time is remaining and browse other deals.

“Be it the deal clock or our deal carousel, LivingSocial’s Hotmail members can interact with their Daily Deal in a whole new way,” said Rich Kilmer, vice-president of research and development for LivingSocial.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years