Will Microsoft Soon Replace its Windows Live Email Client With a Browser Shell?

According to a report by ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley, Microsoft is working on an HTML5-enabled version of Hotmail, which could launch around the same time the next wave of its consumer-focused Windows Live tools debuts in a year or two. One of the main aspects of this move is that Hotmail could get support for offline storage before Gmail, as ReadWriteWeb’s Sarah Perez notes. To me, though, the most interesting part of this rumor is that Foley’s sources report that Microsoft may replace the Windows Live Mail client with this new version of Hotmail.

“The Softies are working on an HTML5 version of Hotmail with something that few people understand the consequences of: offline storage,” Foley’s contact told her. “They are planning on replacing the Windows Live Mail client with it.”

Hotmail vs. Windows Live Mail Today

Microsoft has worked hard on adding new features to Hotmail in the last few months, including Active Views (which gives you instant access to package tracking data if it’s referenced in the message, for example), aliases and sandboxed JavaScript support for select emails and vendors. Indeed, at this point, Hotmail offers a more feature-rich experience than the Windows Live Mail client on the desktop.

Is Microsoft Already Moving in this Direction?

As new techniques allow developers to bring desktop-like experiences to the Internet, it only makes sense for desktop developers to think about bringing these experiences back to the desktop as well. Microsoft already offers IE9 users some enhancements to the Hotmail experience. Microsoft’s support for hardware acceleration in the browser has also been ahead of its competition. Hotmail now also makes it easy for its users to import accounts from Gmail and Yahoo Mail while keeping their old email addresses. Pinning apps to the Windows taskbar, of course, is another feature that points towards an emphasis on bringing the Web and desktop together.

Back in the early days of Google’s now-defunct Google Gears project, it looked like web apps to the desktop was soon going to be the new normal. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft was indeed working on this in some form.