Microsoft's SkyDrive Gets a Partial Makeover

When a tech topic gets hot-such as, oh, storing all your files in the cloud-it's rare for Microsoft not to have a relevant offering. But it's quite common for Microsoft to have gotten into the game so early that by the time the result of the world is interested, whatever Microsoft has looks like a product from another time.

That's kind of been true with Windows Live SkyDrive, Microsoft's online storage system. It's been around for nearly four years -- longer than most of its major competitors, and definitely longer than Apple's iCloud. But SkyDrive hasn't changed that much over the years. It's best known as the storage system that's hooked into other Microsoft products, such as the Office Web Apps and Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft's SkyDrive Gets a Partial Makeover
Microsoft has released an update to SkyDrive. It doesn't feel like a radical modernization of the service as it stood, but it does sport a bunch of improvements that are nicely done.

Such as:

  • Microsoft reengineered the service to be snappier-it now takes advantage of HTML5 techniques and hardware acceleration. It does indeed feel quick...less like a browser-based service and more like an app that happens to live online.
  • The interface has been spruced up for better consistency with Hotmail and improved integration with the SkyDrive Groups sharing feature.
  • It can do HTML5 video for videos you've stored online, for playback that doesn't require a plugin.
  • It has very nice support for photos, with cool thumbnails that are smart enough to handle odd-sized pictures such as panoramas well, infinite scrolling, and HTML5-based slideshows that are speedy and fun.
  • It now supports file uploads up to 100MB, double the old limit.

This is all good stuff, and if you've never checked out SkyDrive or have an account that's fallow, you should check out the new version. But when I spoke this morning with Anand Babu, a Microsoft senior product manager, he spent a fair amount of time emphasizing that Microsoft plans to add more features, without getting more specific. I can see why: even with this new SkyDrive, there are swaths of the service that feel old school or poorly fleshed out, as if Microsoft wasn't entirely committed to it.

For instance:

  • Despite the new HTML5-friendly features, you still need Silverlight to get a nice, slick interface that makes it easy to upload lots of files at once into a SkyDrive, and Silverlight still isn't compatible with Chrome for Mac.
  • Microsoft offers a version of OneNote for the iPhone, and a phone-friendly version of the SkyDrive Web site-but those are its only non-Windows mobile offering so far. (It says that more stuff is in the works.)
  • By itself, SkyDrive is mostly a browser-based service; if you want the sort of syncing which services such as SugarSync and Box.net offer, you need to pair it up with another Microsoft service called Windows Live Mesh. Seems like it would be sensible for Microsoft to unify the concept into one product.
  • As you might almost guess from the first word in its name, Windows Live Mesh for Mac feels like an afterthought. I can't find mention of it on the main Live Mesh site or at Microsoft's Mac site. After several minutes of Googling, I found it here.
  • SkyDrive gives you a roomy 25GB of space for files in full, but Live Mesh only lets you sync up to 5GB of data-the same amount you get with a free SugarSync or Box.net account. SugarSync and Box.net let you get lots more space if you're willing to pay; Live Mesh offers no paid options.

SkyDrive in its current form still have a much heavier emphasis on traditional computers than iCloud does (at least as explained by Apple at its event earlier this month) does. That's okay -- Microsoft in its current form still has a heavier emphasis on PCs. But I'm curious to see where Microsoft takes this-and especially how much energy it invests in making SkyDrive useful for iOS and/or Android users.

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