Although I use Thunderbird as my primary email client, the ability to check my mail online from any computer is very important to me. I’ve spent the last few weeks trialling the latest betas from Microsoft and Yahoo! as they update their mail service. Replacing the classic Hotmail is the all new Windows Live Mail, part of the new suite of Windows Live™ products, including their new instant messenger. Unfortunately, although it boasts a generous 2GB capacity, the continued use of ActiveX scripting means that full functionality is only available in Internet Explorer (unless you are one of the small number of Firefox users who voluntarily install ActiveX). However, the ability to revert to the “Classic Hotmail View” ensures that you won’t suffer less functionality than previously. It is disappointing that Microsoft still seem not to realise that supporting alternative browsers and allowing users choice is vital in broadening the appeal of their updated services. This alone is enough to prevent recommending it.

Both new systems include a multi-pane setup that allows you to view your inbox in one while dynamically displaying the currently selected message in another. This avoids the need to refresh the entire page each time a new message is selected, and make browsing and sorting emails much quicker. The integration of drag-and-drop functionality is a great improvement and interaction is surprisingly intuitive given the major changes. Windows Live Mail suffers from placing menus in disaparate corners of the screen which will be confusing at first, while Yahoo!’s is much quicker to famaliarise yourself with.

I mentioned Yahoo!’s acquisition of OddPost several months ago, and with it their incredibly sophisticated webmail user interface which mimmicks a desktop mail client. What I had not previously appreciated is the speed and ease with which it operates. Fully supporting all browsers, after trying the new system for just a few minutes it seems absurd to wish to revert to the standard systems of the last generation of webmail. The inclusion of an integrated RSS reader, as well as the existing calendar, means that you can now use it for everything your desktop client would provide. Tabbed messaging will be a familiar concept to anyone using alternative browsers and means that composing emails or replying to messages will open a separate tab within the interface, allowing you to continuing browsing through messages as you write. The only thing it lacks is the ability to display message threads, but this is not something I myself use anyway. This is very much the future of webmail for those who do not wish to be tied down in their choice of browser. If you care about functionality and easy-to-use design as well as mere simplicity, then Google Mail has some serious work to catch up.