One of Microsoft’s most crucial cloud technologies is in flux as the software giant works to consolidate sync engines and clients across the multiple desktop and mobile platforms it supports. But make no mistake: OneDrive will emerge from this year better than ever, and it will work more consistently everywhere. Here’s how we get from today’s mess to a better OneDrive in 2015.
First, let’s recap where we are today.
Microsoft has two different services it calls OneDrive: The consumer version of OneDrive—which can be found on the web at onedrive.com—and the business version that’s available to Office 365 subscribers called OneDrive for Business. Technically, these products are unrelated: OneDrive (for consumers) derives from work the software giant did previously in services such as Live Mesh and Windows Live Sync, while OneDrive for Business is the latest iteration of Groove and SharePoint Workspaces.
(Confused? It gets worse: OneDrive was previously named SkyDrive, and OneDrive for Business briefly went by the name SkyDrive Pro.)
Despite their underlying differences, OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are very similar from a functional perspective, and are thus very similar to users. That is, they are both cloud storage services.
To make these services attractive to users, Microsoft makes mobile app versions of OneDrive available on Android, Amazon FireOS (Fire Phone, Kindle Fire tablets), iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), Windows 8.x and Windows Phone. And it makes mobile app versions of OneDrive for Business available on some of these platforms, while on others it is combining OneDrive and OneDrive for Business into a single OneDrive mobile app. (More on this in a moment.)
These mobile apps all work the same way: They provide a live view of all the files and folders in your OneDrive/OneDrive for Business storage, which of course requires a live Internet connection; if you’re offline, you cannot see or access anything in OneDrive. You can download files from OneDrive/ODB
Likewise, Microsoft provides fuller-featured OneDrive selective sync clients to more sophisticated desktop PC platforms such as Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Mac OS X. These clients let you integrate your OneDrive storage into the PC’s file system so you can access your files naturally from your file manager and from applications. They provide an interface for selecting certain files and folders that are synced to the device so that they are also available when you’re offline.
But here’s where things really go off the rails.
The OneDrive selective sync client for Windows 8.1 is much more sophisticated than the versions on other platforms. Where other versions of the client only show you the files and folders you’re syncing to the PC, the Windows 8.1 version displays all of your OneDrive files. It uses placeholders to represent the files that exist only in the cloud, and if you open one of those non-synced files, it will sync at that moment (if you’re online) and display/work normally.
At least that’s the theory. As it turns out, this system has problems. 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.
For this reason, Microsoft is not using the Windows 8.1 selective sync client in Windows 10 and is instead reverting to an improved version of the client used by Windows 7, Windows 8 and Mac OS X. More on that news in a bit.
Microsoft also makes a OneDrive for Business sync client for Windows (7 or newer), but not yet for the Mac. (It’s coming soon, Microsoft says.) This client is particularly dumb at the moment: When you choose to sync OneDrive for Business to your PC, you are forced to sync everything. There’s no “selective sync,” it’s just all or nothing. With OneDrive for Business also gaining more and more available storage, this kind of limitation is beyond dumb. It’s untenable.
So as you can see, the situation really is a mess. Here’s what’s changing in 2015.
The OneDrive and OneDrive for Business sync engines are merging. While these services both use completely different back-ends today, Microsoft is evolving each so that they use nearly-identical and consistent back-ends. This is better for Microsoft—it’s just one codebase to maintain—but it’s also better for users since the resulting services and clients will be more reliable.
The OneDrive mobile clients will provide access to both services. Indeed, this is already starting to happen. So instead of having two OneDrive apps on your smart phone or tablet—one for OneDrive (consumer) and one for OneDrive for Business—you will have just one app, OneDrive. And it will provide access to both services.
The OneDrive selective sync client is evolving. For Windows 10 (for phones, tablets and PCs), Microsoft is creating a new generation of the OneDrive selective sync client that will work with both services and as a result be more reliable. But it will also provide access to new features, like shared OneDrive items—those files and folders that others have shared with you via OneDrive—big improvements to photo sharing, and more. After Windows 10 ships, but before the end of 2015, Microsoft will further improve the OneDrive selective sync client to support some of the functionality of the Windows 8.1 placeholder files. It’s not entirely clear what this means, exactly, but the goal is of course to be able to both “see” and access everything you have in OneDrive from your PC.
Put simply, there’s going to be a lot of OneDrive news to discuss this year as the back-end services are updated, the mobile clients are consolidated, and we learn more about the plans for the selective sync client in Windows 10.