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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Comments (35)

35 responses to “Microsoft Announces OneDrive Files on Demand”

  1. chriswong13

    Better than nothing. I can probably live with this...

  2. konnektio



    looks like Microsoft will offer on demand cloud file access with Windows 10 later this year. But in the time being there's already a great tool on the market: It's not only bring back placeholders to Windows 10, it's also working with earlier versions of Windows and - best of all - Citrix and Terminal Server. In addition it supports UNC connectivity and drive letter mapping based on a native network provider for Office 365. 


    Integrated into Windows Explorer the tool makes the whole Office 365 (Sharepoint Online, Groups, Onedrive) world browsable like folder shares and structures on file servers. 


    Disclaimer: I am working for the company behind the tool and I am happy to personally answer questions or send a trial to anyone interested.


    Best regards,


  3. dstrauss

    And our guaranty that this will ship with the fall release is...? Lately Microsoft has "previewed" more and more features that never make it to the release version that it is not much use planning on availability until you see what actually survives...

  4. Chris Blair

    Now the only big thing missing in OneDrive (and File Explorer) is long (>260 character) file/path names.

  5. Dorm

    Does that mean that I can't see cloud files while offline? Or placeholders are still on my drive?

  6. cawoodstock

    now if only my organization would update our PC image to this version of windows when it comes out. This feature would be super helpful. But... We are still on the original release of win 10.

  7. warren

    Nice. I think the icons showing the status of each file should be clearer and more distinct, but otherwise this is pretty much what I was hoping for.

  8. Mharm

    Looking forward! The only thing this and their announcement doesn't cover is whether this will create limitations with folder redirection in Windows clients where today I redirect Documents, Desktop, Downloads and Pictures via GPO or user config... I wonder if redirected folders could still be "on demand"... Only Insider activity will tell I'm sure...

  9. scumdogmillionaire

    Sounds good to me. Not sure the point of seeing files that haven't been synced when you're offline. I'm cool with this.

  10. SvenJ

    Incidentally, the OneDrive store app already allows viewing all the files on Onedrive(s) when offline. It doesn't actually see any local files, and caches a directory, somehow, for when you are offline. I've used it to find a file when I was offline, so I knew where to go get it, when I re-connected.

  11. kcarson97404

    Hurray! This is the one feature I miss from Windows 8.1.

  12. Waethorn

    Seems to work like Google Drive file sync on Chrome OS.

  13. Dan Francis

    Handles everything I needed placeholders for. Seeing unsynced file names when you are offline has very limited usefulness.

  14. JoseBarreto

    Not sure why you say "as long as the app uses a standard file picker interface".

    The keynote demo clearly showed it working in a command line interface, without any file pickers involved.

    • wright_is

      In reply to JoseBarreto:

      I would guess, that they don't want to say "it just works," then somebody writes their own file picker, which bypasses the offical API and therefore doesn't show the "placeholders" and people complain.

    • IanYates82

      In reply to JoseBarreto:

      True. It was the standard interface that made things work in Windows 8.1 apps with a custom picker didn't work. That's what's been changed in 10 by baking it deeper into the file system. As you say, that was the point of the command prompt demo (no explorer shell acting as the glue)

  15. Spineless

    I think the approach of not showing an unsynced file when offline is a good one because that was one significant issue that users were having. When offline, people thought they had all their files, yet they weren't synced so they didn't really have access to them. I personally never had an issue with this, but then again, I am not a typical user, so making this more clear for regular users seems to make sense.

  16. bsd107

    Not completely clear how this is different than OneDrive today on Windows 10. I can already mark files to be available offline, when offline non-synched files don't show up, etc....

    • SvenJ

      In reply to bsd107: "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."
      "and there are new status icons to indicate whether any file or folder is available offline, only in the cloud, or is currently downloading."
      Once MS reneged on the unlimited OneDrive, icons indicating the status might have been all that was really needed. They have done a lot to make the clients consistent across platforms, so if dumping the original placeholders to make that happen was needed, OK.

  17. the_risner

    I wonder whether the technology will be implemented on macOS...

  18. cayo

    So this is much, much better than the old placeholders...but let's wait to hear from the complainers and trolls. Nothing Microsoft does is good enough for them!

  19. lmoritz

    It looks like it would work well for me!

  20. dcbCreative

    If it works as described... ...I'll be more pleased with Files on Demand then I ever was with Placeholders.

  21. Ben_Tillet

    The questions for us are:

    How will we have our company mapped drives (via GPO) moved into One drive? Is this feature will make One drive for businesses behave like a true file server? If so how?

    Also will it be available for Win7 users?