Windows 10 and the cloud: Still hazy after all these years

Microsoft is a master of the cloud, running solid and successful commercial services based on its excellent cloud infrastructure. But when Windows 10 launches next week, the new client for its signature OneDrive services will be MIA. Here's why, and what's next.

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Microsoft has built one of the largest, most sophisticated cloud infrastructures in the world, using it to power Azure, Office 365, and other enterprise mainstays. By 2018, those commercial services should bring in $20 billion a year (up from the current run rate of $8 billion annually), making them an essential part of Microsoft's post-Windows future.

The company's history with consumer-based cloud services is almost as long but not nearly as successful.

The SkyDrive service (now known as OneDrive, thanks to Microsoft's loss in a trademark infringement lawsuit two years ago) launched in August 2007 and has been under steady evolution since then. The OneDrive synchronization client was integrated into Windows 8 in 2012, nearly three years ago, with a major update a year later.

With all that experience, surely OneDrive should be a marquee feature in Windows 10?

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If only.

When Windows 10 begins its global rollout in one week, it will include a OneDrive client that is functionally equivalent to what shipped in Windows 8, three years ago. Last fall, the OneDrive product team sheepishly announced it was yanking the "smart files" feature, which it had introduced with much fanfare in Windows 8.1.

The version of Windows 10 that the public will see beginning July 29 includes a basic OneDrive client that allows selective synchronization of files with its consumer OneDrive service. Office 365 Business customers have to install a separate client to access storage in the OneDrive for Business service.

Back in May, at Microsoft's Ignite conference, Microsoft offered what it called "a glimpse" of its new OneDrive synchronization client. That follows a road map for the service, released in January.

The good news is that the updated client, which will be available for both PC and Mac, will allow anyone with a Microsoft account or an Office 365 subscription to manage and sync both personal and business OneDrive files from a single starting point. It will also address the issue of how to work with files offline, thus hopefully satisfying the audience that embraced the smart files feature so enthusiastically.

The bad news? That unified sync client won't even be available as a preview edition until "late Q3 2015," at least six weeks after the Windows 10 launch. The final release is still promised for the end of this year, but with only a glimpse of the software so far it's impossible to evaluate how realistic that pledge really is.

Meanwhile, the online service is evolving rapidly, with new features rolling out every month.

The new Photos app in Windows 10 connects directly to OneDrive and offers the option to automatically upload new pictures from iPhone, Android, and Windows mobile devices. You can view those photos in a browser, perform light edits, and share pictures or albums with friends and family.

You can upload MP3, WMA, AAC, and other supported audio files to the Music folder in the OneDrive service and stream them from anywhere in the new Groove Music app for Windows 10. (FLAC files are supported by the client for direct playback but not streaming.) That service works exceptionally well on the RTM build of Windows, although OneDrive integration isn't yet built into the iOS and Android music clients.

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But those who've paid for an Office 365 business or enterprise subscription still have to struggle with a clunky sync client. Its filename, Groove.exe, betrays its ancient roots, which date back to Ray Ozzie's arrival at Microsoft a decade ago. Ozzie left the company five years ago after being its biggest champion for moving to the cloud, but Groove's legacy lives on.

Despite the OneDrive for Business name, the commercial service is still basically SharePoint Workspace, and I have yet to find a paying Office 365 customer who uses it without grumbling.

Microsoft's stumbles with OneDrive are emblematic of its struggles over the past five years. An MBA candidate could get a pretty good case study out of the twists and turns in this technology. A partial recitation:

  • Lack of focus. At one time in the not-so-distant past, Microsoft had no fewer than four separate sync clients for Windows, each designed and delivered by a separate division. (One was actually called SyncToy.) By the end of this year, it will finally be down to one.
  • Confusing branding. Over its lifetime, this crucial service has been known variously as Windows Live Mesh, Windows Live Folders, Windows Live SkyDrive, SkyDrive, and finally OneDrive. And that's not counting the Pro/Business versions.
  • No upgrade path. Keeping consumer and business products separate was a core part of the old Microsoft. It doesn't work so well in a BYOD world, where your customers are going to choose the easiest solution. That's why Dropbox has snuck into so many businesses: It's easy to use and well loved by its millions of customers, even if only 100,000 or so actually pay for it.

For Windows 10, Microsoft jettisoned some of the signature features of Windows 8 . Depending on your perspective, that move was either fearless or an admission of failure, but at least it positions Windows 10 for a future of steady evolution instead of backtracking.

OneDrive's future looks to be following the same path, although we won't know for sure until that preview release arrives. Meanwhile, OneDrive customers, especially those with Office 365 business subscriptions, have to wait.

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