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Microsoft, looking for a way to differentiate itself from other Web email services, has allowed a select group of companies to include JavaScript code in email messages that will introduce new functions, potentially opening up a fertile new canvas for marketers.

That can involve bringing in Orbitz flight and hotel search functions directly into the email message, or Monster’s job search engine. Microsoft also plans to partner up with Netflix and LinkedIn, giving Hotmail users ways to access their queues or LinkedIn profiles directly from the email message. The idea is to shave off a few seconds necessary to travel to other sites and keep the content of email messages up to date.

But it also has the potential of introducing what are essentially ads from Microsoft partners directly into emails — the kind of integrated experience advertisers have long sought.

The Hotmail team said Microsoft is trying a number of things to differentiate itself from Gmail and make it more competitive, like removing limits on attachment sizes and offering a deeper level of connectivity with its Web-based Office applications. There are a number of security concerns with allowing JavaScript inside email messages, because it would be easier to insert malicious code. Microsoft says its Active Views service should eliminate that risk by isolating the email message from your computer.

Research firm ComScore shows that Hotmail is still on top of the email hill with 361.7 million users. Google’s Gmail currently has around 193.3 million users, but it has had a bit of an easier time picking up Internet-savvy evangelists than Microsoft has had. Microsoft is also a bit late to the game with some of its new functions — file-sharing is really a non-issue at this point with the emergence of services like Dropbox, and Google has also been in the Web-based office game for some time now.

Microsoft recently tried to break that cycle by firing off a social media campaign that involved sending the Hotmail development team to news aggregation site Reddit.com. The results weren’t quite so spectacular, as many users didn’t pull their punches and literally asked why they should switch from competing services like Google’s Gmail.

Microsoft only listed those four companies as partners that can use the Active Views service for now. It hasn’t said whether anyone will be able to introduce JavaScript code into Hotmail messages. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s still unproven. Only time will tell if this is as safe and useful as the company suggests.

[Photo: gaobo]

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