Microsoft just announced a nifty new feature for Windows Live Hotmail that is representative of the company’s renewed push to make its email offering more appealing to advanced users and early adopters. Hotmail users can now easily create aliases – that is, fully functional email addresses that are linked directly to the original email account – from within their Hotmail accounts.

Microsoft’s webmail service, just like Gmail, already allows users to create ad hoc ‘+’ addresses ([email protected], for example). This new feature, which is a first for one of the major email providers, works slightly different, though. With aliases, Hotmail users can now easily create new permanent @hotmail or @live.com addresses for their different online personas without the need to create and check multiple email accounts and without having to reveal their real identity through a ‘+’ address. Once an alias is created, messages to and from this account will just appear in the user’s regular inbox, just like mail to ‘+’ addresses does today.

Microsoft is rolling this new functionality out to all of its customers worldwide and it will be available to all Hotmail users by the end of the day. You can create up to five new aliases per year up to a maximum of fifteen aliases total.

“The Enthusiasts are on Gmails – And We Don’t Like That”

While this is an interesting new feature for Hotmail, it is even more interesting in the context of Microsoft’s general plans for Hotmail in 2011. As Dharmesh Mehta, Microsoft’s director of product management for the Windows Live group, told me yesterday, the company hopes to release a number of new features over the course of the year that are aimed at early adopters and enthusiasts. As Mehta told me, Microsoft is quite aware of the fact that Hotmail is generally perceived as a mainstream brand and often looked down upon by early adopters.

“Hotmail got into a bad place about 5 years ago,” Mehta told me. With regards to features, Microsoft perceives Gmail as its most important competitor today, as it – unlike Yahoo – offers its email service as part of a full productivity suite. “The enthusiasts are on Gmail – and we don’t like that,” Mehta said, talking about Microsoft’s motivation for releasing these new features.

Hotmail already allows users to sign in with their Gmail credentials and then import their mail from there without having to use a Hotmail address, making switching is relatively easy and safe for those who want to give Hotmail a try.