Windows RT's Achilles' heel: Cloud connections

Windows RT's Achilles' heel: Cloud connections

Summary: Have you become used to syncing and opening files on SkyDrive? I'm regularly surprised by how much of that doesn't work (yet) on Windows RT.


If you work with multiple computers and devices, and especially if you collaborate with other writers, then the combination of SkyDrive and Office 2013 is fantastic. Got an email with an attached document or some notes you've started making? Save the file on SkyDrive (you can even do that from your phone in some cases); not only can you open it in Word on your PC and carry on working, but it will appear in the recent documents list on the File menu in Office 2013 so it's easy to find.

If you're working on a document with someone else, both of you can open it from SkyDrive and edit it at the same time. Yes, that's useful, because you're often adding different things to the document. You don't get the other person's changes until you both save the document, so you're not distracted by half-finished thoughts or false starts. And you can't change the paragraph someone else is already working in, so nothing gets overwritten. You can use Track Changes to see and revert changes, and if you work in Simple Markup view you won't feel like you're drowning in a sea of red-lined corrections and you can make changes without worrying about losing your favourite sentence. Don't worry about slips of the finger: SkyDrive has a recycle bin, so as long as you turn on the setting in Word to make a backup you can even go back and retrieve a paragraph the other person deleted without turning on Track Changes (or if they accepted their change before you got a chance to check it).

With SkyDrive syncing files to all your PCs as you change them, this can quickly become your natural way of working, although it's not so successful when you're working in a folder that someone has shared from their own SkyDrive because you can't get that to sync to your PC. (The SkyDrive team tells us that this is feedback they've heard a lot; they said the same about being able to sync only selected folders shortly before that feature was introduced, so fingers crossed that they're working on it.)

Windows RT: a sync hole
But when you use Windows RT, this effortless flow from device to device and person to person judders to a halt anytime you're not online. You can't sync files from SkyDrive to Windows RT (unless they're OneNote notebooks, which can sync and be available offline, meaning that this is perfectly possible on RT — even in Windows Store apps). The only way to take files with you is to open them in Office; any changes you made get synced back when you reconnect, making a mockery of the idea that Windows RT can't sync to SkyDrive. It's just that Microsoft hasn't enabled it.

I had fully expected sync to come to Windows RT via the Windows Store SkyDrive app that's preinstalled, as soon as the SkyDrive desktop app on Windows 8 added folder-selective sync. (Again, OneNote for Windows 8 syncs to and from SkyDrive so it's perfectly possible for a WinRT app to do that — it doesn't have to be a desktop sync tool.) I'm hoping that this is also just a matter of time, because it's the difference between the cloud being as inconvenient as any other file store you're not permanently connected to and a seamless workflow that I've come to depend on in just a few short months.

Of course, without a desktop SkyDrive sync tool in Windows RT, other apps are excluded as well — even when you're online. Want to save an image onto SkyDrive from Windows RT? You have to save it locally and then use the upload button in the SkyDrive app.

Annoyingly, you'll see SkyDrive folders you've used in Office showing up in Explorer and in the file dialogs of desktop programs like Paint and Notepad, in the Recent places section. Don't click on them though — just trying to open those folders will crash Explorer, Paint and Notepad every time, with the kind of Runtime error dialog that will make you think you're still using Windows 95. Crash Explorer this way and the whole desktop can lock up for a few seconds (it does come back again, so be patient rather than jumping straight to the power button).

Try to save a file to a SkyDrive folder from a desktop Windows RT app like Paint, and Explorer will crash with a distinctly retro error message.

I'm sure there's a perfectly good technical explanation for the crash and the vintage error message. But this is a bad experience that feels like the first real bug we've found in Windows RT, and it underlines the fact that cloud connections, which should be a strength for Windows RT, are a bit of an Achilles heel. Apart from OneNote, none of the cloud services you can use on Windows RT sync — and neither the YouSendIt app nor the website let you upload files from Windows RT.

(The website wants Flash and isn't on the Microsoft whitelist yet, and the app doesn't implement a file picker — that's not Microsoft's fault, and there's even a tool I could use to hack the whitelist file and add it myself. But it's another service that's part of my workflow that doesn't transfer to Windows RT. I'm a fan of YouSendIt because I can send files that are too large for email and have them automatically expire in a week, so I don’t have to go back and delete them by hand to stay under my 2GB limit. I'm sure I can find other ways of doing this, but I was happy with the workflow I already had and it's frustrating because I can't see a reason why it shouldn't just work.)

Windows RT should be the perfect way to take the cloud with you and do real work. Even for Office 2013 RT, that's just a pipe dream so far. Windows RT is a young platform that needs developers to support it to avoid these frustrations — and Microsoft needs to be the poster child for having all its services work fully. The good news: it's just software and it should be easy to change.



Thanks to everyone who suggested their favourite cloud storage service. Several of them have Windows Store apps; but none of them to sync to give you offline access to files (or to allow you to create a file offline and have it automatically uploaded to the cloud service). Thanks for sharing the tips about mapping SkyDrive to a drive letter; for access when you're online it's useful and avoids the bug where selecting a SkyDrive folder in Explorer crashes the desktop application you select it from.

If you're wondering about using Office RT for commercial work, check out the many ways you can get commercial rights as covered by our ZDNet colleague Ed Bott. Several people noted the offline capabilities of Office RT; this works only for documents you open when you're online and leave open. If you have 19 chapters in the book you're writing, you could open all 19 documents before you get to somewhere where you don't have a connection, but if you restart your device you can't access those documents again until you're back online. Windows RT tablets are mobile devices and there are plenty of places where you don't get connectivity - like a transatlantic flight...

And for the record, I'm a fan of Windows RT; it's good enough that I want it to be better and support all the ways I need to work.


Topics: Microsoft Surface, Cloud, Microsoft, Windows

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • brand new sw always contains lots of flaws

    There is a good reason (actually there are a lot of good reasons) to wait a while until you buy a first generation device.
    This specific issue is obviously a sw only thing so it can easily be corrected with the next update. In my opinion MS should issue SW updates at a rather high pace to get rid of all those annoyances. They should not wait until many problems have accumulated and only then release the update. Don't wanna wait six months until they fix it.
    • Never happend...

      In the 2 months time of my Surface Rt ownership, this problem has never occured. Skydrive synch is working smoothly, every time for every type of documents.

      On your Surface, create a virtual drive connected to your SkyDrive (\\\DavWWWRoot\......) and save documents on that drive. It works very well. You can also connect on different SkyDrive account using the same technic.
      • That's not syncing ...

        That's merely giving you access to your SkyDrive via Explorer.

        What Mary is correctly pointing out is that SkyDrive doesn't currently sync its contents to your Surface RT in the background such that if you're without a network connection, you can't access your SkyDrive files.
        • Offline Mode

          Mary failed to clarify the offline mode experience if RT is in airplane mode or no WIFI connection. True there's no local version of a SkyDrive file, per say. But, if you were to edit a previously opened/saved SkyDrive file inside an Office RT app, the app goes into offline mode, but the file is still editable.

          There are two issues she points out, rolled into one: 1) Bad experience not being able to save a file to SkyDrive from a desktop app like Paint 2) Not having access to local versions of SkyDrive files. The mapping of a network drive to your SkyDrive that gbouchard99 describes addresses point #1.

          Her article caused some confusion by mixing feature faults with experience, but invoked some great comments and tips like the mapping of a network drive, which works great.
          David Addison
          • Thank you!!

            Thank you for saying this. This clarifies what's taking place here well.
          • It's not "per say."

            It's "per se."
            Oscar Goldman
        • Same results

          The surface, as far as I am aware of does not allow to synch a folder the same way you would do with your desktop. The Skydrive app let's you Access your content, open docs and Edit them. It seems like the issues she is talking about is related to that. However, when you create a Virtual Drive connected to your Skydrive account. Opening and saving documents never causes any problem.
    • Really ? I could not believe!

      Could you use Google Drive on Windows RT? Google drive is magical for sharing and collaboration. The Google drive contents of my Windows desktop and laptop are synced with my Nexus 7 and other Asus tablets, my Sony Xperia phone, and my Chromebook. Just save files into Google Drive or print them to Google Drive (from any devices) and you can access them from every devices, everywhere and every ones that have access. I am sorry MS but Google makes Google Drive work with their Android devices, and believe me it works great.
      • imagine that

        Google making an app or service that works well for THEIR platform. I'm sure this SW issue will be resolved soon.
        • No big deal

          Well, that's THEIR ecosystem after all. Nothing wrong with Google supporting THEIR own platforms only. Just like iCloud does not work well on Android too. If the author need to use cloud service a lot, he should switch to Google for the best user experiences instead.
  • Well...

    I think you are confused with how OneNote is designed and other Office 2013 Programs in Win RT or Windows 8

    Win RT or Windows 8 and Windows Phone, OneNote syncs locally and to SkyDrive and the Offline version is stored in the users "Appdata" folder. If you are expecting all your other Office 2013 documents to sync that way is bit too much to ask for. Even in Windows Phone Office its designed that way, you can save your word/excel document to phone or to SkyDrive. If you choose to save to phone, its stays there. But if saved to SkyDrive it should be available everywhere. But OneNote from Windows Phone sync to all devices like the OneNote on Win RT.

    " The only way to take files with you is to open them in Office; any changes you made get synced back when you reconnect, making a mockery of the idea that Windows RT can't sync to SkyDrive. It's just that Microsoft hasn't enabled it. "

    - I don't think they will 'enable' it, I think Office 2013 is not designed that way except OneNote. They may release a Desktop SkyDrive app or update the current Store app with a sync selected folder feature.

    If you want your word document or spread sheet to be available everywhere, save your original copy in SkyDrive and in Win RT Office you can open it from SkyDrive. Office 2013 allows you to open a file from SkyDrive and save it there when you are done editing without leaving the program.

    I upload files in Win RT using drag and drop from desktop file explorer to SkyDrive opened in desktop IE.

    I think your "Win RT Sync hole" is a bit of over exaggeration, but having said that I would love to see a Desktop SkyDrive sync app in Win RT ASAP.
    • Exactly!

      And more than "a bit of over exaggeration"... ( ;
  • Hole after another hole

    It seems the history of Windows RT, it's incredible how many articles stating about what is wrong with it. Obviously when there is smoke of different colors it's because the fire is not just one.
    For me it's almost clear that Windows RT was a rushed product, trying to go after iOS and android products. I understand the need of that but these problems can stain the reputation of the product in a fatal way.
    • Hole after another hole

      This pretty well describes iOS/Android to, don't you think? Every single version of iOS needs to be patched in day one, just make a effort to looking in changelog or drive by apple blogs/boards. For now Windows RT don't have that's many "holes" like you say, not even more than Andorid/iOS, don't even more 'critical' (from user experience point of view). So, how this few glitches makes "fatal reputation" for Windows RT, and this hundreds in iOS/Android don't for them?
      • Actually I don't think it's the same with android or iOS

        And the problem is not a small single glitch, the problem is the entire platform as a whole, that in the case of RT is having a really hard time... Just my opinion... and probably from hundreds of millions that are buying an iOS or android tablet compared with the 1 million in the RT campus.... and now i'm just being meany :), because sales not always reflect the quality of a product.
        • RT is pointless

          It really is. It has no reason to exist. It is a flawed product by design.

          If you want to be in Microsoft's ecosystem, and honestly, it is by orders of magnitude the best one to be in, you should just go Windows 8.
          x I'm tc
        • No issues here

          I use as a daily device and never once have i had issues. The ONLY issue i have had is that i'm not able to use it as a cutting board. Which in fact is probably the ONLY trait that it shares with the iPad.
      • Here is one

        Here's a guy who has never tried a Surface and claims that it is dead.
        • Surface RT ? or Surface what?

          Please could you clarify. I have tried Windows RT and so far I prefer my Nexus tablet. MS must build better product and platform to get people in their camp.
      • It is not day one for Windows RT and problems are still there.

        Windows RT comes later in the market place, therefore it should be better and not just good enough. Right now, Google Drive works great with Android devices, and that's all I care about. If MS want people in their camp, they should build a much better product. Right now, I prefer by far my Nexus tablets.