It was the home of many internet users' very first webmail addresses. Now Microsoft has announced plans to drop its famous – if somewhat outdated – Hotmail brand, and replace @hotmail.com with @outlook.com. The software giant says its new Outlook email service will prevent inbox clutter by automatically sorting emails into categories, and link users' email accounts to other web services, such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype. It comes with built-in versions of Microsoft Office apps, including Word, as well as the firm's Skydrive cloud storage. Existing Hotmail users will be advised to upgrade to Outlook, but allowed to keep their vintage @hotmail.com address.
The move is also doubtless designed to compete with Google's, Gmail. Hotmail was one of the first free web-based email services, launching in 1996. It was bought by Microsoft for an estimated $400m the following year, rebranded as MSN Hotmail, and is now credited with bringing the masses to electronic mail. In its early years its fiercest rivals were Yahoo! and AOL.
In 2004, however, Google released its own, invitation-only, free webmail service, and in 2007 Gmail became available to the public. While Hotmail still boasts 350 million users, Google claimed in a June 2012 blog to have opened 425 million Gmail accounts since its launch.
An email suffix can be a source of solidarity or scorn – with Gmail users in particular disdaining those who maintain an account with one of the more elderly services. That our email addresses tell the recipients of our messages something about us is beyond dispute; the only question is where Outlook.com will slide into the mix…
Appropriately enough, it's all about "me, me, me" with these conspicuous Mac users, who tend to be smug metropolitan types from the so-called creative industries: advertising, television production, public relations. They take their cultural cues from upscale lifestyle magazines, which assure them that they're nobody without an Aquascutum suit and a complete suite of Apple communications gadgets. They bore their fellow guests at north London dinner parties, who presume they're discussing the weather as they wax lyrical about "The Cloud". Their emails always end with the boast: "Sent from my iPad".
The default email domain of the 20-something hipster geek, who wears carrot jeans or denim hotpants, but also knows how to change their TCP/IP settings. Gmail is like Nike, Ben & Jerry's ice cream or Arcade Fire; somehow it's still considered cool, even though it's everywhere. Gmail users are more likely than most to be social network enthusiasts: often on Twitter or Tumblr, always idly checking their feeds mid-conversation, or while they're waiting in line at the bar. Example tweets might run along the lines of: "Dude, you still have a Hotmail account? #Lame".
@demon.co.uk; @btinternet.com; btopenworld.com; @aol.com… These are the email domains of the left-behind: the middle-class mums and dads who bought their internet on a CD-ROM sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. They live in Cheshire or the Home Counties. They shop exclusively at M&S (for food and clothes). They have a Labrador. And when their children tell them they really ought to have a proper webmail address, they're baffled by the concept of broadband. After all, they only ever use the computer at home, and their email software has all the storage space they need to download photos of the grandchildren.
The Hotmail user lives by the if-it-ain't-broke mantra, and often maintains an email account that he or she first opened as a teenager in the 1990s – with what, at the time, they considered a clever or witty handle. (Labour MP Chuka Umunna, for example, could once be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org). They're practical sorts. They might spend the odd evening on Facebook, "Liking" their friends' wedding and/or baby photos, but you'd never catch them wasting their time with Twitter. They wear fleeces, and that pair of Gap jeans they bought five years ago. They watch Top Gear. They find coffee a bit pretentious.
The office worker without a personal email address is a rare but fascinating breed. He or she may feel harassed by the modern world, but they're obliged to engage with it nonetheless. You'll see them smoking outside office blocks, or blinking in the sunlight at Tube station entrances: stressed, prematurely greying business people, their sleeves rolled up, their tie loose, their sweat patches blooming, jabbing furiously at the buttons on their BlackBerry: "A Gmail account? What would I use that for?"