Windows 8.1 is in many was a refinement of Windows 8. One of the areas of welcome focus is the integration between SkyDrive and the Windows shell. To be clear, Windows 8 shipped out of the box with integration with SkyDrive with a Windows Store App that allowed you to navigate through the files stored up in the cloud.
In Windows 8.1 Microsoft have gone one step further and allowed desktop applications to integrate with SkyDrive directly via Windows Explorer WITHOUT having to download a separate desktop application to synchronise files. I suspect that it is really a case of the separate desktop application now being integrated with the Windows product out of the box, but nonetheless it is one less thing to download and install.
This alone is note worthy but the real improvement in my opinion is the fact that you now no longer have to synchronise all files down to your local machine in order to access them via Windows Explorer, instead a stub file is visible which triggers the download of the real content from SkyDrive.
Previously you had to download all your files from SkyDrive or select a subset that you wanted to have visible on your local machine. This lead to either massive and largely unnecessary data transfers, or placing folders in directories that ultimately didn’t synchronise leading to potential data loss.
Because there are stubs present on the local machine, that content is instantly available for searching via the Windows search charm. Once a file is selected from the results it is them streamed down from SkyDrive.
This subtle change in the way cloud files are handled is important in the context of two converging trends. The first is the shrinking form factors of Windows devices, and the corresponding limited storage available and the growing demand for digital media storage. It simply isn’t possible for me pull all that content down onto my local device, and I can’t even choose (at the time of configuration) an intelligent subset of the content I want synchronised. I want that complexity managed by the operating system.
Room for Improvement
Overall I think Microsoft is heading in the right direction here, but there is still room for improvement.
Like many folks I have a relatively large personal media collection of family photos. If I was a single guy, I would probably dump all this up into SkyDrive, but I want to share this media with my family members and allow them to contribute to it, and organise it.
SkyDrive allows me to share files, or folders with specific users but sharing isn’t really a first class feature in SkyDrive. For it to really work it needs:
- True shared ownership of folders, with clear “unshare” process (clone/merge).
- Ability to pool SkyDrive quota for shared folders.
- Better surfacing of shared content as a first class citizen in the file list.
Something akin to the rooms feature on Windows Phone would probably help resolve this where someone can create a room, and the room itself has a SkyDrive which borrows its storage quota from the participants.
Most businesses that are using Windows 8 and Office 2013 should probably be looking at SkyDrive Pro for managing shared content (which is backed onto SharePoint). This is a completely different animal to SkyDrive with which it shares only a name (no actual code). In the future I would like to see Microsoft unify these two experiences so that it is possible “mount” a SkyDrive folder in SkyDrive Pro and vice versa. I doubt it’ll happen due to data security concerns with corporate data leaking out through individuals SkyDrive accounts, but it’d be nice to see a unified end-user experience.
For now however we’ll have to make do with the SkyDrive Pro desktop application and SkyDrive Pro Windows Store App. The former has an advantage over the later in that it allows you to connect to multiple SharePoint locations – the later only connects you with your Office 365 personal site – and only for one Office 365 tenant.