Microsoft Announces OneDrive Files on Demand

Posted on May 11, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in OneDrive, Windows 10 with 35 Comments

Microsoft Announces OneDrive Files on Demand

Microsoft announced today that it will include a long-awaited replacement for OneDrive placeholders in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update.

UPDATE: Because of a miscommunication about this feature, I’ve updated this article. —Paul

To fully explain this, let’s first dredge up some bad memories.

As most readers probably know, the version of OneDrive that Microsoft included with Windows 8.1 was special: It included a unique feature called placeholders, which allowed you to see all of your OneDrive content in File Explorer, even that content you had not synced to the PC. And even when you were offline.

“As it turns out, this system had problems,” I wrote over two years ago. “Those placeholders take up a lot of space, and with OneDrive moving to much bigger storage allotments, it’s possible that someone will buy a new Windows tablet or PC with a tiny amount of onboard storage (16 GB is the new minimum), and that just syncing the placeholders would fill up the disk. Furthermore, placeholders don’t always work correctly: If you try to open a picture file placeholder with Adobe Photoshop, for example, you’ll just get an error message; you need to sync the file first.”

Microsoft tried to fix these problems, but couldn’t do so. So when Windows 10 shipped in mid-2015, it included selective sync, but not placeholders. Behind the scenes, however, the firm also created a more resilient new sync engine for OneDrive that would work across Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. And that new sync engine is the foundation for the work Microsoft has done to improve OneDrive across platforms ever since.

Many users loved placeholders, some so much so that they literally stuck with Windows 8.1 to continue using this feature. And Microsoft didn’t do itself or OneDrive any favors when it abruptly revealed in late 2015 that it was killing off unlimited OneDrive storage for Office 365 users. This triggered a lot of animosity, with users feeling they had been betrayed.

Flash forward to 2017 and Microsoft has made many changes to OneDrive, consolidating its OneDrive and OneDrive for Business clients into integrated solutions, making sharing easier (more than once), and improving the mobile clients many times. But OneDrive’s competitors, one-by-one, began adding placeholder-like functionality, triggering more grumbling from users on the Redmond side of the fence each time.

I was told point-blank that Microsoft would never implement a new version of placeholders, and as such, I’ve cautioned readers to be careful about pinning too many hopes on rumors. But those rumors have been fairly constant and persistent. As long ago as December 2015, for example, Brad wrote that Microsoft was “actively looking to bring the feature back” and that it could appear as soon as the Windows 10 Anniversary Update (then codenamed “Redstone”).

In September 2016, Brad likewise wrote that Microsoft had teased what appeared to be a OneDrive replacement at the Ignite trade show. He also noted that the firm would announce more details at the next Build conference.

(Over a month ago, Brad likewise reported that this placeholder replacement might be called “on-demand files,” which is very close to the actual name.)

Well, here we are. At Build. And sure enough, Microsoft is announcing a new OneDrive feature called Files on Demand. That is a replacement for placeholders.

The difference is that, with placeholders, each placeholder took up some space. With Files on Demand, the thumbnails are listed as 0 bytes; the space is instead taken up by a Windows Thumbnail cache. Whatever: They are visible while offline.

So here’s what’s happening with OneDrive Files on Demand.

When. OneDrive Files on Demand will be included with the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update that is shipping September. If you’re on the Windows 10 Insider Preview, you should gain access to this feature sometime in early June, I was told.

What. Like placeholders, OneDrive Files on Demand lets you “see” all of your OneDrive-based files and folders in File Explorer, without having to first download them from the cloud.

Better compatibility. Speaking of improvements, OneDrive-based files will now work in virtually any Windows application (or mobile app): As long as the app uses a standard file picker interface, these files will work fine, and will download and open on demand as needed. This answers another major issue with placeholders.

It’s for home and work. OneDrive Files on Demand works with both OneDrive (consumer) and OneDrive for Business. Placeholders were only available in consumer OneDrive.

New status icons. Microsoft has done a nice job cleaning up the OneDrive user interface, and there are new status icons to indicate whether any file or folder is available offline, only in the cloud, or is currently downloading. These status indicators work in any view mode in File Explorer, and you will even see an inline progress bar when content is downloading.

It’s smarter. As with placeholders, you can double-click on any file to open it, and doing so will trigger a download to the PC. But these casually opened files may eventually automatically disappear from the PC if you need the disk space. Files you explicitly download by right-clicking and choosing “Always keep on this device” will never disappear, of course.

Microsoft has worked for years to create a solution that can replace placeholders. And contrary to what I was expecting, and what I was originally told, this does appear to be a complete replacement. So that’s good news. Very good news indeed.


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