Why Hotmail file attachment size is meaningless

Updated: October 18, 2010

The simplest way of besting your competition is by brute force. However, it may not always work. The best example of this methodology is the reinvigoration of Microsoft Hotmail. If you've read this article: The new Hotmail gives Gmail a run for its money, you may be under the impression that Microsoft has revived its mail service by launching a blitz against Google.

Now, I disagree with article. Allow me tell to you why.


I'll start with an analogy. Let's say you have this cushty little sport car that does everything you need. Now, another car dealer is trying to make your switch brands and buy its stuff. To do this, the dealer offers you the same old cars it has always sold, with one notable exception: this new car model has 14 seats and a puny 20HP engine. Do you get it? Not yet, but let me elaborate.


Back to the real world. What Microsoft did was add a feature that allows you to attach files up to 10GB in size, touting it as a killer feature against Google's 25MB limitation. Or maybe Microsoft did not do that, but the above article certainly did assert that. In theory, you should be excited and thrilled that you can now upload 10GB files to your mail messages. However, the reality is a little different. Here's a mathematical proof.

Mathematical proof

A 10GB attachment is like sending someone the entire contents of a website, downloaded offline, rather than linking to the website. Furthermore, you're sending someone 10GB of data whereas they might only be interested in 10MB. Utterly useless.


First, what could you possibly be sending that weighs 10GB? A movie? Family pics? 10GB? Second, if you want to share your data with people, there is no need to send them 10GB of stuff, forcing them to download all of that, run a useless anti-virus scan that will take nine hours and clog their hard disk with data they will most likely never need. Upload your data to a sharing service and send people a link. Let them choose whether they want to see some, all or none of your stuff at their own convenience. No need to kill people's mailboxes. In fact, many mail clients and services have a data size limitation.

If you browse online, you will find snippets of information that show you how impractical the 10GB attachment size really is:

This kind of approach is exactly the doctrine that made Hotmail obsolete; sending people huge, single-file attachments. It's a retro-archaic approach to the modern Web. Not really exciting and hardly something to be excited about.

Reality, Part Zwei

Now, a practical network limitation of 10GB attachments:

Let's say you have a 20/20 MBit Internet with no bandwidth cap. This means you can upload roughly 2.5MB of data every second. To upload a 10GB attachment, you will need four hundred seconds. Not bad. The only problem is, most people are not blessed with a 20/20 MBit Internet. The upload speed will be far less, around 1-2 MBit. This translates into roughly 10-20x increase in upload time. The seven-minute upload will now take between 1-2.5 hours. If your Internet connection is even slower, you may be looking at endless hours of uploading a single file. One small failure and you'll have to repeat it all over again.


In a way, from the purely network perspective, this feature could work for people in rich, developed countries with a robust Internet infrastructure. For everyone else, it's like the new car. Impractical.

So, what I'm trying to say?

Before we end this rather pointless article with a lukewarm conclusion, allow me to barf another allegory at you. It goes like this: Hummer will always suck as a car, no matter what its color. Hotmail will always be an old, decrepit mail service, no matter the size of its file attachments. It's not about size, it's about quality.

Finally, speaking of Hotmail, just tried to open the website in Firefox, got this:


Wonderful, is it not? And yes, Javascript is enabled, thank you.


There we go, a humble yet unshakable proof unto why I'm right and everyone else who disagrees with me on this particular subject is wrong.

Mail file attachment is probably the least important killer feature any serious mail vendor might want to tout as the secret weapon against their competitors. Speed, ease of use, accessibility, security, indexing and tagging, all of these strike me as cardinally more important than a chance to send someone a boring photo album the size of a continent, full of badly shot images.

Linear thinking has no place in the modern Web, I'm afraid. Hotmail is a relic of the past and the last stunt just proves it all the more. Well, that would be all, dear fellas. No need to get excited. It's free, and there's the freedom of choice, also free. Enjoy whatever suits you best, or heed other people's advice at your own peril.