Hotmail Microsoft Tech

Bizarre tech support techniques

Hotmail is a really big service – servers measured in the thousands, active users measured in the hundreds of millions, incoming mail measured in the billions.  It’s not cheap to run (yeah, we’re Microsoft, cry you a river).  To keep our costs down we don’t make it easy to e-mail a human directly to get technical support and as a result users get (understandably) frustrated.

Enter Reeves, fearless, rogue cowboy PM, roaming the uncharted wastelands of the net searching for Hotmail users in need.  I spend tireless hours combing the dark corners of the net looking for…

OK, I don’t even believe myself.  What I do is set up Google alerts to drop me an e-mail once daily when news reports mention Hotmail.  My primary interest is to find out what reporters are saying about Hotmail but I occasionally find gripes mixed in with the news.  Last week, for example, I came across a pro-wrestling reporter who had to re-write his weekly article because he was unable to get into his Hotmail account.

Since I’m not in support the only ways for me to be able to help people with Hotmail is to post info on my blog, free-lance by tracking down gripes on the web or (crazy thought here) to proactively design new features for Hotmail which make it easier to use <gasp>.

So, as always, if you have a gripe about Hotmail, e-mail me.  I love to hear compliments about our product but hearing complaints is the next best thing.  Coming up with brand new stuff is hard… fixing stuff we broke is easy, if we know it’s broke(n).

P.S. it appears Hotmail is becoming a regular topic in the industry news… I wonder if I’ll get a chance to meet The Rock.


Safe list, address book, mailing list… what’s the deal?

Receiving mail from friends shouldn’t involve searching through a bunch of potency ads in your junk e-mail folder.  If you want to make sure you receive these messages you need to tell the Hotmail server who your friends are (only you can decide if you want to receive mail from your friends).  There are a few lists provided in Hotmail to help you “safe list” mail you’d like to receive: your contact list, safe list and mailing lists list (say that three times fast).

Why so many lists?  Here’s a good way to view the lists:

Contacts: These are people to whom you send e-mail.

Hotmail’s contact manager stores the same type of information you keep in your PDA, little black book or in the pile of wadded up business cards you haven’t quite gotten around to organizing.  You can enter address info, phone numbers and, most importantly for this topic, an e-mail address.  Any e-mail address you enter into your Hotmail contacts will be treated as a friend… Hotmail will avoid junking the mail from your friends.

To add contacts: Sign into Hotmail and click the “Contacts” tab at the top of the page.
Extra tip:  Look in the left-hand column under “Tools” for some ways to quickly build your contact list.

Safe list: These are addresses from which you receive e-mail but to which you rarely (if ever) send e-mail.

The safe list is the perfect place for you to enter the e-mail addresses or domains of companies from whom you’d like to receive e-mail but to whom you don’t send mail.  Why fill up your contact list with extra items when you don’t send mail to them?  It makes it harder to find contacts when you need to.

To add to your safe list:  Sign into Hotmail and click the “Contacts” tab at the top of the page.  Look in the left-hand column for “Safe List”.  Click the “Safe List” link then enter e-mail addresses clicking the “Add” button after each address.
Extra tip:  If you receive a lot of mail from one domain (e.g. all your co-workers send mail from [worker] you may enter a domain in the safe to cover all addresses from the domain.

Mailing lists: These are addresses where the sender changes often but the recipient doesn’t (and the recipient isn’t your address)

If you subscribe to an e-mail mailing list you’ll find using one of the first two lists is unlikely to work well.  The problem occurs most with discussion lists since the mail will always come from some random subscriber and go to the list.  Since you don’t want to maintain a list of all the people subscribed you can, in this case, indicate that mail to the list is safe.  Hotmail will look at incoming mail and avoid junking it if the mail is addressed to an address on your mailing lists.

To add to your mailing lists list: Sign into Hotmail and click “Options” (the link is near the top right, next to “Help”).  In the left-hand column click “Mail” then click “Junk E-Mail Protection” in the main (white colored) section.  The mailing lists link will take you to the entry form.  The form accepts only e-mail addresses, it won’t accept simply a domain.
Advanced user tip:  If you have an old account which forwards mail to your Hotmail account Hotmail will junk the e-mail because it’s not to your Hotmail account (it’s to your old account).  If you list your old account address as a mailing list Hotmail will accept the incoming mail.


More work news

Exciting news was announced at the end of last week, I am now the Lead Program Manager for the Hotmail feature team!  Yay me!  I’m really excited about the new challenges coming up (and a little nervous too as it’s going to be a whole new type of work).  It’s going to be a ton of fun and I already know I enjoy working with the other two front door leads, Denise (business) and Omar (infrastructure).  Making this whole thing a lot less frightening: I am inheriting an awesome team, In order for me to fail I would to work at it (I don’t plan on failing :)).

While I’m excited to take on this new challenge it does come with one disappointing aspect: my previous manager, Jen, has decided to take a new role up in Redmond.  Her new team is gaining a tremendous resource, I’m jealous.

Hotmail Microsoft

Movement from the Mac guys

A couple big changes this week involving the guys from the Mac team (I used to test PWS, IMN, OE and Entourage for the Mac team):

Tantek Çelik has decided to leave the MS fold and strike out into the world.  Tantek was a key player in the IE browser for Mac and is well known for his CSS contributions.  He also worked to get his teams’ excellent rendering engine into one of our set top boxes, unfortunately without success.  He has a great summary of his MS work in his open farewell letter.  He has yet to announce his next project.

Also related to Microsoft Set top boxes, Dick Craddock has come on board with Hotmail as the Front Door Development manager (we call the servers which host all the chrome and features for Hotmail the “Front Door” machines because users enter through the front door).  Back in 1998 when Microsoft bought Hotmail the Mac Internet client team (IE and OE) in San Jose was kind of cut in two as many people went “downstairs” to work on the newly acquired service.  Dick took the reigns and I had the pleasure of reporting to him for a time.  Dick moved buildings along with the Mac IE team and went to work on Ultimate TV and then onto other MS TV products.  Now, almost six years later, I get a chance to work with him again.  Dick’s migration is 100% upside for Hotmail.

I moved from the Mac group to Hotmail in ’98.  Kristin, who used to report to me as a tester, joined later.  Omar, who first came to MS as an intern in my team, is now a lead here.  Dick, to whom I used to report, is now a dev manager here.  Hey, the world does revolve around me!

Hotmail Net

Hmm, I was going to charge more than that

While I was only joking about selling addresses (see comments) it appears the AOL workers are a little less loyal to their users.

A snippet of the whole article from Reuters:

US Charges AOL Worker Sold Customer List for Spam
Wed Jun 23, 2004 07:07 PM ET

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. investigators said on Wednesday they had arrested an America Online employee and a Las Vegas marketer for stealing the Internet provider’s customer list and selling it to a purveyor of “spam” e-mail.

AOL members were flooded with millions of unwanted messages because of the scheme, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. district court in New York.

Jason Smathers of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was charged with stealing a list of 92 million AOL customer screen names and selling them to Internet marketer Sean Dunaway of Las Vegas.



The official word

The official press release is now available on MS Press Pass.  Enjoy!

In related news, Omar is also stoked about the change. 🙂


The cat’s out of the bag…

Yep, it looks like the articles are starting to roll off the presses, even before any press releases are out from MS Press Pass.  How do they do it? 🙂

Here’s what’s important: we’re not trying to have a “storage war” as some would say, we’re tying to make storage not be “the issue”.  We’re putting in a lot of effort to make sure we have the features users really want and need.  In the rush to announce the storage bump the articles gloss over that we’ll be doing things like improving security by changing the anti virus cleaning to be free for all users (we have had free anti virus scanning for all users for over five years).

I guess the basic thing is this: I want people to know that we love making cool software, we’ll continue to do that.

Related news:


Hotmail sold my e-mail address to spammers!

How often have you heard this?  Perhaps even thought it?  I know I’ve been asked about it more often than I can count and see it crop up on every web board I frequent at some point in time.  The story is always the same…

I signed up for a Hotmail account, never told anyone about the address, only used it a couple times to e-mail friends and within a couple days I was already getting junk e-mail!  Microsoft must have sold my e-mail address to spammers!  How else could you explain them sending me spam when I didn’t tell anyone my new address?

Well, I can tell you with absolute certainty that Microsoft did not sell your e-mail address to anyone.  Junk e-mail is actually so costly to Hotmail that if we were to try to make a business out of selling e-mail addresses to spammers the addresses would be so expensive that spammers couldn’t afford them. 

But if Microsoft didn’t sell my address, and I didn’t tell anyone my address, how did the spammer know to send me junk mail?

The answer is simply: they guessed.  Spammers invest a lot of time in generating software designed to be good at generating possible e-mail addresses.  The software performs what’s called a “dictionary attack” by taking a list of words and names and combines them into every conceivable address.  The word list can include e-mail addresses found in public locations (e.g. if posted to a newsgroup you can bet that will get spam).  After constructing their list the spammers then try to send e-mail to their list of constructed e-mail addresses.  In order to increase their odds, the spammers will identify the largest ISPs to test out their new e-mail lists.  As the world’s largest free e-mail provider (source: Guinness) it’s no wonder spammers hit us hard.  After preening their lists the spammers then change the domain names and start hitting other sites.

Junk E-mail costs Hotmail a lot of money.  In, fact, junk e-mail costs everyone money (estimated cost to businesses last year: $10 billion).  Businesses hate it, consumers hate it, ISPs hate it.  There is no possible way for Hotmail to profit by selling your address, the cost in customer support complaints alone would be enough to sink us.  Add the storage, administration, networking, PR and legal costs to the pile and there isn’t a spammer out there who would be able to afford to buy our list were it for sale.

In short, no, Hotmail didn’t sell your e-mail address.

Hotmail Web

Out of block space?

When talking to strangers about Hotmail the most frequent complaint tends to be about Spam.  This is often followed by the complaint that their block list is full and they can’t block any more Spammers.

Know what?  The block list is terrible for blocking Spammers.  Know why?  Because each time a Spammer sends out a new piece of junk e-mail they change their address so you can’t easily block them.  The block list does work, but it really just works for that annoying ex-friend who won’t stop sending you the latest e-mail humor (which happened to be the latest e-mail humor three years ago and you’ve already seen it, oh… about a bazillion times).

The best thing you can do to stem the flow of junk is turn on Hotmail’s Junk E-Mail filter.  You won’t stop junk e-mail entirely, but you will slow it down (I’ll tell you later how to totally stop it, but the solution is not for everyone).  To turn on the junk e-mail filter for your Hotmail account you can take one of two paths…

The quick way:

From the Hotmail Home page (the first page you see when you sign in) click on the red “Junk E-Mail folder:” link. 

If you have the Junk E-Mail filter turned off, you’ll get the prompt to turn on the filter.  Set the filter to “Enhanced” then click the OK button. Why is there no “Off” you ask?  Perhaps I’ll get into that some other time. 

The slow way

No, clicking on that one link on the home page is not the only way to access the Junk E-Mail settings.  You’ll find, in fact, that once the filter is on, clicking that link simply drops you into the Junk E-Mail folder.  To turn on the filter in options, or to adjust it at a later date, you need to start by going to options (the link’s at the top right of your Hotmail page).

Make sure you’re on the Mail options page by clicking the “Mail” in the left hand column.

Click Junk E-Mail Protection.

Click Junk E-Mail Filter.

Tired of clicking yet?  Don’t worry, almost done.  Now, just as in the first section, set your filter to Enhanced and click the OK button to save.

So, after going through all that work, what do you get in return? You get a cleaner inbox. Most of the junk that used to be landing there is now landing in your Junk E-Mail folder.  The Junk E-Mail folder will be cleaned out every 7 days or so, keeping your account space from running out due to an influx of Junk E-Mail.  I will tell you: this is not a cure-all.  You’ll still get junk, but it will be much easier to manage.

One final tip: add your friend’s e-mail addresses to your address book to tell Hotmail you always want to get their mail.  Hotmail will rarely (if I say never I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong :)) put mail from a friend in the Junk E-Mail folder.

I’ll be happy to get into more details later… but I think I’ve already tried everyone’s patience enough with 7 pictures in one blog entry. 🙂