Microsoft wants to make emails more interactive and turn them into something akin to small web apps. Today’s emails mostly consist of static text or HTML and, for the most part, this has not changed much since the advent of the modern Internet. Theoretically, you could run interactive elements inside an HTML email with the help of JavaScript and other web technologies, but for security reasons, virtually every online and offline email client does not allow this. Because of this, when you open your daily LivingSocial email, the message can’t include an interactive widget that tells you how much time you have left to buy or if a deal is already sold out.

Microsoft wants to change this, however, and is partnering with LivingSocial, Netflix, LinkedIn, Orbitz, Monster and Posterous to bring interactive elements to their emails when they appear in Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail service.

Dharmesh Mehta, the director for Windows Live product management, will officially unveil this new functionality at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco today.

Microsoft first piloted this project with Monster, starting in December 2010. LinkedIn is currently also piloting these enhanced emails, while Posterous and LivingSocial are in the process of finalizing their implementations. Netflix’s support is still a bit further out.

Making Email More Productive

I talked to Dan Lewis, a senior product manager on the Hotmail team, earlier last week, and he explained that Microsoft’s reasoning behind this project is to make email more productive. Active Views in Hotmail were among the first steps in this direction (active views allow you to see videos, Flickr galleries and package tracking information right inside of Hotmail’s web interface).

Today, 90% of emails that arrive in Hotmail inboxes include links (though some are surely just links to privacy notices and similar content in the footer of a message and aren’t likely clicked upon by the service’s users). Hotmail’s Active Views feature addresses some of these, but to interact with most of the content in today’s email messages, users still have to go to another website.

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“The message is the application”

As Lewis told me, “it’s time for a new kind of email that allows you to do more from the message itself.” The idea here is to turn emails into something akin to web apps themselves (“the message is the application,” as Lewis put it when I talked to him).

In practice, this means that when you open up an enhanced email from Posterous about a comment on your blog, for example, the message can display all the current comments (including those that arrived after the email was sent!) and provide you with a dialog that allows you to reply to the comment.

For Netflix, this system would allow you to see the most recent recommendations for your Instant Queue, for example, no matter how old the email is – and add movies to your queue right from the message without ever leaving Hotmail.

Security

In the long run, Microsoft hopes to open this system up for any email sender, but for the time being, it’s working with the small number of partners to pilot this system. A little piece of information that these partners add to the message header tells Hotmail that a special version of the email is available for display in Hotmail.

As I mentioned above, the main reason for banning these features from virtually all modern email systems today is security. To ensure that the emails that arrive in Hotmail are safe, Microsoft actually sandboxes the code and isolates it, so that it can’t harm a user’s machine. In addition, it checks who the sender is and will only display these messages when they come directly from the source. Because of this, these interactive elements won’t show up if you forward a message to a friend, for example. Hotmail’s servers also inspect the message to ensure that there is no malicious code in there and users will have to enter their security credentials for the respective service the first time they open one of these messages.

Standards?

For the time being, this is obviously a Hotmail-only feature. There is currently no standard for displaying this kind of information within emails yet. While Lewis acknowledged that “there is definitely an interest to turn this into a standard,” he also admitted that different services will likely take different approaches to add these kinds of features to their clients.

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