Why is Microsoft turning to Android, the OS managed by its rival Google, to promote its cloud services? Here is a screenshot that tells a story.
Let’s not get carried away; Angry Birds has twenty times as many downloads, but still, serious numbers.
This week brought the news that SkyDrive is to be renamed OneDrive:
For current users of either SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro, you’re all set. The service will continue to operate as you expect and all of your content will be available on OneDrive and OneDrive for Business respectively as the new name is rolled out across the portfolio.
I have no strong views on whether OneDrive or SkyDrive is a better name (the reason for the change was a legal challenge from the UK’s BSkyB).
I do have views on
SkyDrive OneDrive though.
First, it is confusing that OneDrive and OneDrive for Business share the same name. I have been told by Microsoft that they are completely different platforms. OneDrive is the consumer offering, and OneDrive for Business is hosted SharePoint in Office 365. It is this paid offering that interests me most in a business context.
SharePoint is, well, SharePoint, and it seems fairly solid even though it is slow and over-complex. The Office Web Apps are rather good. The client integration is substandard though. A few specifics:
Yesterday I assisted a small business which has upgraded to full-fat Office 365, complete with subscription to the Office 2013 Windows applications. We set up the team site and created a folder, and used the Open in Explorer feature for convenient access in Windows. Next, run Word, type a new document, choose Save As, and attempt to save to that folder.
Word thought for a long time, then popped up a password dialog (Microsoft seems to love these password dialogs, which pop up from time to time no matter how many times you check Remember Me). Entered the correct credentials, it thought for a bit then prompted again, this time with a CAPTCHA added as a further annoyance. Eventually we hit cancel out of frustration, and lo, the document was saved correctly after all.
Another time and it might work perfectly, but I have seen too many of these kinds of problems to believe that it was a one-off.
Microsoft offers another option, which is called
SkyDrive OneDrive Pro. This is our old friend Groove, also once known as Microsoft SharePoint Workspace 2010, but now revamped to integrate with Explorer. This guy is a sync engine, whereas “Open in Explorer” uses WebDAV.S
Synchronisation has its place, especially if you want to work offline, but unfortunately SkyDrive Pro is just not reliable. All the businesses I know that have attempted to use it in anger, gave up. They get endless upload errors that are hard to resolve, from the notorious Office Upload Center. The recommended fix is to “clear the cache”, ie wipe and start again, with no clarity about whether work may be lost. Avoid.
One of the odd things is that there seems to be a sync element even if you are NOT using SkyDrive Pro. The Upload Center manages a local cache. Potentially that could be a good thing, if it meant fast document saving and seamless online/offline use. Instead though, Microsoft seems to have implemented it for the worst of every world. You get long delays and sign-in problems when saving, sometimes, as well as cache issues like apparently successful saves followed by upload failures.
OK, let’s use an iPad instead. There is an app called SkyDrive Pro which lets you access your Office 365 documents. It is more or less OK unless you want to share a document – one of the the main reasons to use a cloud service. There is no way to access a folder someone else has shared in SkyDrive Pro on an iPad, nor can you access the Team Site which is designed for sharing documents in Office 365. Is Microsoft serious about supporting iPad users?
Office 365 is strategic for Microsoft, and SharePoint is its most important feature after Exchange. The customers are there; but with so many frustrations in trying to use Office 365 SharePoint clients other than the browser, it will not be surprising if many of them turn to other solutions.
SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, is critical to the company’s strategic direction for Windows. It is the means by which content and settings are kept in synch across different Windows machines; or more precisely, user accounts across different Windows machines.
Content in SkyDrive is accessible via any web browser, and there are clients for Windows and for various mobile devices. Office Web Apps are also built-in so you can create and edit documents in the cloud.
In principle it is an excellent service, but since the release of Windows 8.1 a few problems have emerged. Specifically:
Some users report problems synching. Check out this thread which begins with users of the 8.1 preview but continues through to the release. The main issue mentioned is that synchronisation simply fails for some users, but others report duplicate documents created with names like somedoc-mypc.xls and somedoc-mylaptop.xls, where “mypc” and “mylaptop” are the names of computers used with the service. Working out which document is the most current can be tricky.
I have encountered this myself, even on some occasions with a document created and edited solely on one machine. Somehow SkyDrive manages to think there is a conflict.
Another problems is unnecessary network traffic. Here is an example of some of these issues:
My brand new shiny Surface Pro 2 was set to have the documents available offline and everything else online only. The sync has stalled just like everyone else reports in this thread. I changed the folder to "online only" and the sync claimed to complete. I then changed the folder back to "available offline" and it proceeded to redownload thousands of files, finally stalling again with a little more than 200 left. The Metro app says that the files have completed yet they are still in the pending queue.
Many users express what seems to me a valid complaint, that Windows 8.1 gives you less information and control than was in Windows 8.0.
Some users dislike being tied to a Microsoft account. SkyDrive is a consumer service, and you can only use it with a Microsoft account (MSA) – a descendant of what was once called Passport. In Windows 8 and earlier, which had standalone SkyDrive clients, that was not too bad. You can sign into SkyDrive just as you would into Dropbox or any cloud service. In Windows 8.1 though, SkyDrive is baked into the operating system, which means that you have to sign in centrally to a Microsoft account.
There are several reasons users struggle with this, including privacy concerns, inconvenience if you have more than one SkyDrive account you want to use, and complications when you have a corporate login to a Windows domain as well as SkyDrive:
When I login with my domain account and connect my MSA to it, Skydrive still won’t sync, it keeps creating "Skydrive" folders in the user directory each time it tries to start. I can’t find anything in the logs to help.
If I instead login with the MSA account to the computer it will sync.
SkyDrive is a free service and Microsoft has good reason to encourage users to sign in with one of its accounts, which gives access to the Windows Store, Xbox Music and other services. I can see why users object, but also why Microsoft wants to encourage users to sign in.
It is harder to understand why the service does not work reliably. The impression I get is that this is more to do with the client, especially in Windows 8.1, than with the cloud service; but it is hard to be sure.
How extensive are the problems? Again, it is hard to get firm data. I find it works reasonably well for me, though I get the duplicate file problem as well as regular issues saving Office documents. The notorious Office Upload Center reports a problem and you have to re-open the document in Office and save to resolve it.
Here is the scenario. You are working away in Windows 8.1 and want to save a document to SkyDrive. You look for the SkyDrive link in Windows Explorer but it is not there.
Don’t panic; your documents are most likely fine and you can get to them in the web browser via http://skydrive.live.com
Still, that is inconvenient. How can you restore the Explorer link, other than by rebooting and hoping it reappears?
The solution is to open a command prompt (press Start button and type command) and then type:
and press Enter. You don’t need to run the command prompt with administrator rights.
All going well, SkyDrive will reappear:
What if it doesn’t? Now you have to check the logs or event viewer and look for specific errors. But the simple technique described first has always worked for me.
The iPhone, or maybe the iPod, was the beginning of the era of usability. Make something nice to use, reasoned Apple, and users will come flocking.
After the iPhone came the iPad; and then Android which while lacking the polish of iOS, mostly has the same characteristics of appliance rather than computer in its user interface.
What about Microsoft? It has learned to some extent. Windows Phone is a user-friendly operating system. The touch interface in Windows 8, although a shock to existing Windows users, shows obvious effort towards usability and sometimes succeeds. Navigating the weather app, for example, is a pleasure.
There are times though when Microsoft seems to have learned nothing. Take the new SkyDrive integration in Windows 8.1 for example. It is foundational in Microsoft’s effort to wrest Windows into being a cloud-centric operating system, where you could lose your device, buy a new one, log in, and find all your stuff. I’ve posted about its progress here.
But then you are on a train, say, with a poor internet connection, and you double-click a file in SkyDrive that has not been downloaded to your PC. This is the dialog you see (at least, it is the one I just saw):
There is so much wrong with this dialog that I don’t know where to start. But I will have a go.
First, I doubt the error is really unexpected. If my internet connection is poor, problems downloading stuff from SkyDrive are expected, not unexpected. You would think that the client could figure out, “It looks like I have a poor connection to SkyDrive” and inform the user accordingly.
Second, the error number. The dialog invites me to search for help using this number; however to do so I would have to copy it manually as it is unselectable. The number of course is in hexadecimal, so there is a high chance of copying an O instead of a zero as the difference is not obvious other than to programmers. Nor is it clear where I should search. Should I bang the number into Bing and hope for the best? Such searches can be fruitful, but they can also go badly wrong when you hit sites that tell you to download their utility to clean your registry, or some such nonsense.
Third, there is space for a human-understandable description of the error, but it is says “No error description available”. Lazy programming somewhere. Maybe in a code base the size of Windows it is too much to expect helpful messages for every error but this is not something users should normally see.
Fourth, there are three choices: Try Again, Skip and Cancel. Bearing in mind that I double-clicked only one document, what is the difference between Skip and Cancel?
Fifth, there is a More details button but it is disabled. Why, if no more details are available, does this More details button appear at all? Though I’d suggest that Error 0x80040A41 is a great candidate for “More details” rather than being something non-technical users are expected to make sense of.
What should happen? First, SkyDrive and/or its client should work better. This is a critical feature; but users are complaining (yes, I found this by searching for the error code) and it seems that problems persist in Windows 8.1 RTM. Microsoft has been working on file sync for decades, yet upstarts like Dropbox work more smoothly.
Second, when bad things happen, I am all in favour of plain English. I don’t see any reason ever to confront users with error numbers in hex. Put it in a technical details option by all means. In this particular case, why not something like, “Windows is having problems downloading from SkyDrive. You may have a poor internet connection; please try again later, and if the problem persists, contact support.”
Getting this right is not easy; but for as long as ordinary users see this kind of dialog in day to day use of Windows, the flight to iPad and Android will continue.
Update: the error fixed itself when I found a better connection
If your iPad breaks or gets stolen, it’s bad but not that bad. The chances are that there is no data on the iPad that is not copied elsewhere, especially if you let Apple’s iCloud do its default thing and copy everything you create. Get a new iPad, sign in, and you can carry on where you left off; the apps are there, the data is there too, even if you do not actually have a backup of the device itself.
Google’s Chromebook goes even further in this direction. When you sign into the device you sign into Google and all your data is there.
This kind of freedom from worry about losing apps or data stored on the device seems to be Microsoft’s goal with Windows as well, though it is more difficult because historically applications have complex local installs, sometimes protected by activation tied to the PC itself, and data is stored locally in your user folders – Documents, Pictures, Music and so on – or in some cases elsewhere, depending on how well behaved the application is. In order to defend against data loss if the PC is lost or damaged, you have to keep regular backups, or make a conscious effort not to store data locally.
Windows 8.1 includes a significant change. It is optional, but the default is that documents save to SkyDrive (note that the name will change soon) by default.
This is in addition to synchronisation of settings, passwords and application data. Again, SkyDrive is where this data gets stored. You can see and control what is synchronised in Charms – PC Settings – SkyDrive - Sync Settings:
The list is extensive and includes web browser favourites (provided you use Internet Explorer) and “settings and purchases” within apps. Note that apps in this context means new-style Windows Store apps, not desktop applications. Separately, there is a Camera Roll setting that syncs images and optionally videos from the Camera Roll folder in your Pictures folder.
How close then is Window 8.1 to a cloud-centric experience, where you could thrown your machine in the bin, buy another one, sign in and carry on where you left off?
It is getting there, but in practice there are plenty of snags and oddities. The big one is desktop apps, of course, which do not participate in this synchronisation other than via SkyDrive if you save documents there. You will have to reinstall the applications as well as reconfigure them. That said, certain desktop applications now have a subscription model. Two big examples are Microsoft Office, if you buy via an Office 365 subscription, and Adobe’s Creative Cloud which includes Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Audition and so on. Using cloud-aware applications such as these helps, but it is not seamless. For example, in Office 2013 I have to reconfigure the Quick Access Toolbar and copy my custom templates manually to a new machine.
New-style apps do roam to a new machine and you can now use them on up to 81 different machines, which should be enough for anyone. Note though that your apps, which are listed when you sign into a new machine with a Microsoft account , are not actually installed until you run them for the first time. Not a problem is you are on the internet, but worth knowing before you catch that flight. In the following example, only two of the apps are actually installed:
Microsoft takes a similar approach with SkyDrive documents. The feature called SkyDrive “smart files”, described here, means that documents are by default only available online. I can see this catching people out, especially with pictures, for which a thumbnail shows even when the actual picture has not yet been downloaded. Here are some pictures I took at Microsoft Build in June; they are on SkyDrive but although they look as if they are on my PC a message in the status bar says “Available online only.”
A nice feature in terms of seamlessly connecting to cloud storage without filling your local hard drive (or often, small SSD drive), provided you understand it. Of course, you can mark a file or folder to be available offline if you choose, in which case it is downloaded.
Some things are confusing. If you have a domain-joined machine then passwords do not sync, which makes sense for security, but also raises the question of what all this consumer SkyDrive stuff is doing on a domain-joined machine anyway? Of course there are other ways of doing something similar in domain environments:
The odd thing though is that you can link a Microsoft account (SkyDrive, App Store account) to a domain account and you then end up with a mixture of consumer and corporate features which work in different ways. It would be tempting simply to block the use of Microsoft accounts completely – which you can do with group policy – especially if you are concerned about sensitive corporate documents arriving on consumer cloud services and mobile devices through the magic of sync.
It is also confusing that Office 365 users cannot use SharePoint in Office 365 to sync settings.
I also feel that the user interface in Windows 8.1 needs some work in this area. Here are some things I find odd:
Applications like Paint and Notepad use a principle of “default to where you last saved.” This means that even if you set SkyDrive as the default document location, if you save once to the documents or pictures folder on the PC, it will default to that local destination next time you use it.
Since both SkyDrive and the local PC have a folder called Documents, it would be easy not to notice.
Office 2013 is even more confusing. I have Office 365, so when I hit save in Word I get offered Office 365 SharePoint, SkyDrive, “Other web locations” which includes an on-premise SharePoint, and Computer. Oddly, if I hit Computer, the default location is SkyDrive:
Much of this confusion is a legacy problem as Microsoft attempts to transition Windows to become a cloud-centric OS, but it could be better done. I would suggest clear naming to help users know whether a save location is local or cloud. Most of all, I would like to see consistency between consumer and corporate deployments so that a domain-joined PC can have the same options that work in the same way, except that data is stored to a corporate location.
Microsoft Office 2013, combined with Office 365 or the new SharePoint, introduces SkyDrive Pro. This is an area where users can store documents online, similar to the public SkyDrive, but as part of an organization’s SharePoint site or Office 365 team site.
One features which I was glad to see is the ability to store documents offline in a special Explorer folder. These are kept synchronized with the online storage.
Here is how this works with my preview Office 365 account. I log in to the online portal, and click the SkyDrive option in the menu.
I see my SkyDrive files.
At top right is a SYNC hyperlink. Click that, and this sets up synchronization to a special Explorer folder, which in my case is called SkyDrive @ Office Next. This is not just a shortcut to a network location. The documents remain there if you are working offline.
This excellent feature seems to depend on a new client called SkyDrive Pro Preview which has an icon in the notification area and also shows up in Task Manager.
If the SkyDrive Pro client is not installed and you attempt to sync your online files, the bad old SharePoint Workspace shows up instead. The consumer SkyDrive client will not do. SharePoint Workspace also supports offline files, but does not integrate with Explorer and is prone to go wrong.
Now here is the puzzle. Microsoft loaned me a Samsung Slate with Office 2013 pre-installed, and this has SkyDrive Pro. However it also has SharePoint Workspace, and the associated Office Upload Center, which duly went into a sulk when trying to sync my SkyDrive Pro files.
Clicking Resolve and entering my login details did nothing. However, when I clicked on the SkyDrive Pro icon instead, I got the new-style Office sign-in, following which everything worked.
A few puzzles then. Is the SkyDrive Pro client really new, or it is just a new wrapper for the bad old SharePoint Workspace?
Further, it seems that Microsoft has not yet cracked the problem whereby users sign in, tick the “Keep me signed in” option, but still get asked to sign in repeatedly.
This is the SkyDrive Metro-style app running on my 1280 x 1024 desktop, in its default view. Note that each icon is 185 x 211 px. The actual title of each document is in relatively small text though still readable.
On my slate I only get two rows per screen:
You can set it to Detail view which gives nine rows on the desktop display and six rows on the slate.
Touch-friendly, undoubtedly, but is this really best-practice design? What if you have lots of documents in a folder? I suppose it is just swipe-swipe-swipe, not helped by the fact that the SkyDrive app cannot be searched:
nor is there any way that I can see to sort the documents, say by last modified.
Of course you can do all these things in the touch-hostile desktop application.
Both the app and Windows 8 itself are pre-release so may improve, but I would like to see a smarter approach to browsing and selecting documents in Windows 8 Metro-style.
For more on Windows 8, see my review on The Register.
Users of Office Web Apps have just been given some minor but welcome updates, described here.
They include printing in Word when in edit mode,new chart tools in Excel, and again in Excel the handy autofill tool, which lets you drag the bottom left corner of a selection to extend it automatically. In the example below, the blank cells fill with the remaining months of the year.
Office Web Apps also work on SharePoint 2010 deployed internally. However, the version of Office Web Apps for SharePoint has not been updated, so these users (who have to pay for Office licenses) now have an inferior version to that available for free users on SkyDrive.
Automatic and incremental bug-fixes and updates are one of the inherent advantages of cloud computing.
Many of us want access to our documents from anywhere these days, and if you are still storing documents on a Windows server then remote access to documents usually means either VPN or SharePoint. VPN is heavy on bandwidth and not great for security, so SharePoint seems the obvious solution.
SharePoint is a mixed bag of course, but once it is up and running the browser user interface seems reliable as a means of getting at your documents over the internet. That said, it is inconvenient to run up the browser and navigate to a web site whenever you want a document. A user recently highlighted another issue. Their company uses a web application that frequently requires documents to be uploaded. This is straightforward if the document is on a local hard drive or network share, but not if it is in SharePoint. The workaround is to save the document out of SharePoint to the local drive, then upload it.
Fortunately there is another option. SharePoint Explorer View lets you access documents through Windows Explorer; you can even map SharePoint as a network drive. Now you can browse documents without a web browser, and upload directly to a web application.
Sounds great; and when it works, it is great. Troubleshooting though is a world of pain. If you have looked into this, you will know that there are really two Explorer Views, one using Internet Explorer and ancient FrontPage protocols, and the other using WebDav and Explorer. It’s the second of these that you most likely want. However, achieving this is notoriously troublesome, raising uninformative messages such as “Your client does not support opening this list with Windows Explorer", or from the command line System Error 67, or System Error 53 “The network path was not found”.
Another common complaint is incessant login dialogs.
I discovered a few useful resources.
This white paper on Understanding and Troubleshooting the SharePoint Explorer View is essential reading.
From this you will discover that if you are using Windows XP, the WebDav SharePoint Explorer view will not work over SSL or on any port other than 80. You are stuck with the FrontPage view, which is less useful. Apparently Microsoft has no intention of fixing this. Upgrade to Vista or Windows 7.
In addition, many XP and even Vista users find this update essential before anything starts working. It is necessary on Windows 2003 since the web client is not installed by default. It does not apply to Windows 7 though.
A good resource on the repeated login issue is here. It can be tamed.
Windows 7 is better, though I experienced an odd issue. One Windows 7 machine cheerfully opened the Explorer view to a remote site on port 444. I could engage Explorer View from the SharePoint web site, or from Network in Explorer, and it just worked.
On another machine, same network, also Windows 7, same web client settings, I could not get it working. I was on the point of giving up when I happened on the right incantation from a command prompt:
net use s: https://your.domain.name:444\shared%20documents /user:domain\username password
In this example S is the drive letter for a mapped drive, your.domain.name is the URL for SharePoint, 444 is the port number, shared documents is the folder name. For some reason this worked instantly.
Well, SharePoint is an option. Before leaving this subject though, I would like to mention Gladinet, a third-party utility which is able to mount a variety of cloud storage providers as network drives, including Amazon S3, Google Docs, Windows Live SkyDrive, and in the latest version Windows Azure. It works on XP, Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 2003, comes in 32-bit and 64-bit editions, and worked immediately in my quick test. The ability to mount drives in Explorer itself, as opposed to an Explorer-like application, makes a big difference in usability.
Gladinet does not support SharePoint, sadly. Still, before you roll out SharePoint it is worth considering that something like an Amazon S3 account requires no CALs (though third-party clients like Gladinet may do), is maintained by a cloud provider rather than on your premises, is not hooked in any way to Windows clients, and might be a lot less hassle to deploy.
I do also understand the attraction of SharePoint, if you don’t or can’t trust the cloud, and like the way it integrates with Active Directory or its other clever features such as versioning or workflow management. What I don’t get is why Microsoft makes basic features like Explorer View so hard to get working.
Finally, this aspect of SharePoint should get better in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010, which includes SharePoint Workspace 2010. This will synchronize with SharePoint 2010 document lists, giving you an offline copy you can access in Explorer. Agnes Molnar has a summary with screenshots.