Microsoft announced its begun beta testing a new release of Windows Live Hotmail, the company's popular, and free, Web-based email service, although it's likely to take some time for the beta to roll out to users around the globe.
The software giant first previewed the new Hotmail service last month.
The beginning of the beta test comes -- perhaps not coincidentally -- the same day that Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) launched the retail version of Office 2010 for consumers and small businesses.
However, the beta may take much of the summer for it to percolate through all of Microsoft's Hotmail servers, a company official said.
"Our Hotmail servers are grouped into clusters, and we have hundreds of clusters. We start by upgrading a single cluster, wait to make sure that it's running smoothly and that we didn't miss anything during testing, and then we continue on to the next cluster," Mike Schackwitz, program manager for the Windows Live Hotmail team, said in a post on the Windows Live team blog Tuesday.
The company claims to have 360 million current Hotmail users who exchange 350 million Office documents and 1.5 billion photos each month. Besides casual users, a lot of small businesses use Hotmail as their e-mail service which explains the high volume of Office documents.
Among the new features coming to Hotmail is a "sweep" function designed to help users better manage, move or delete e-mails from inboxes, as well as integration with Microsoft's new Office Web Apps -- browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
Hotmail also increases the size of attachments via Live SkyDrive -- Microsoft's free online storage service for Windows Live applications -- to 10 GB. In addition, users will now be able to create and send photo albums from within Hotmail.
Office Web Apps for consumers became generally available last week. Users with Windows Live IDs -- some 400 million of them -- can access the Web Apps for free -- but maybe not all right away.
"Some features, like the integrated Office Web Apps and the ability to send files via SkyDrive, will initially be available only in certain countries. For example, Office integration will roll out to Hotmail customers in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Ireland first, and then to customers in other countries later this year," Schackwitz added.
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