Windows 10, OneDrive sync and the art of difficult conversations

There's always uncertainly in developing technology. But how you handle that uncertainty for customers is how you avoid fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Heart's in the right place, foot utterly in mouth. That's where some Microsoft folk must feel they ended up last week talking about changes to OneDrive in Windows 10.

Microsoft's cloud storage service didn't start as just another place to store files in the cloud. It grew out of a powerful and sometimes complex sync system called Live Mesh that would copy files from one PC to another and let you log in remotely to collect files you'd left at home, long before Box and Dropbox were familiar names to everyone.

By Windows 8.1 it was neatly integrated into the OS; you can see in Explorer not just the files you chose to sync, but the whole structure of the files in the cloud - complete with thumbnails for images and metadata like when you created a file, even when you weren't online. That means you can look for a file in Explorer - by browsing through your folders or searching if you remember it in more detail. And if you're online you can open it by double-clicking as usual. You'll just have to wait for it to download. You can rename it without downloading too. You can send a cloud file as an email attachment or open it in Paint or compress it into a Zip file and generally - with some exceptions - treat it like any other file. If you haven't synced your files, OneDrive just acts like a slow local drive.

If you're offline, you can see that the file is there, and you can look at the properties, but you can't open it. So yes, you have to plan ahead before jumping on a plane, but wherever you store your files, if they're online and you're not, you can't use them.

But even when you're offline, you can use the folder structure you've created. You can create a new file and put it in the right folder straight away, and have it sync as soon as you got online again. So if you've made a set of folders to organise your different projects, you can add a file to the right place when you save it.

Those advantage come with some disadvantages. Drive utilities like WinDirStat (a particular favourite of mine) get confused; instead of the actual disk space that the placeholder files were taking up, it shows your OneDrive folder as taking up as much space as all your cloud files, which doesn't make it easy to track down what's actually taking up too much space (the last time I looked, it was OneNote backups).

Some applications like Lightroom and Windows Live PhotoGallery don't understand placeholder files and don't work well with them. Other applications like Paint and Paint.NET have no problems. While Explorer sees online files, the command prompt doesn't; so a DIR listing shows only the files you've synced. The Windows photo viewer tries to be extra helpful and if you're tapping your way through a set of online images, it not only downloads them ready for you to look at, it leaves them synced instead of cleaning up after itself.

Those things are merely irritating; seeing placeholders in OneDrive is so useful that its fans are happy to put up with them. If Paint can manage placeholders, it's just a matter of coding for other apps.

But the thing that made it inevitable that the placeholder system would need an overhaul is the combination of ever-increasing cloud storage and cheap tablets with tiny local storage.

As OneDrive gives you more and more storage (an unlimited amount for some Office 365 users), the amount of space the placeholder information takes up can start to be significant, especially on the smaller tablets that are coming out. The index, thumbnails and metadata can be 5 to 10 percent of the full file size. Imagine the index for a terabyte of online files cluttering up a $99 16GB tablet...

Add that to the fact that you have to either right-click a file, switch to details view or use the OneDrive Store app to see which files are synced and which are only online, and Microsoft decided that placeholder files were a good idea that was causing problems.

The first step was to start work on a whole new sync engine with a whole new architecture designed to make sync more reliable, especially for the often-flaky OneDrive for Business - which is actually the old Groove Sync tool - and without the current placeholder system.

The second step was to put that into the latest build of the Windows 10 Technical Preview, and to announce it as a way of fixing the 'confusing' problem of placeholder files not being clearly marked.

In retrospect, it might seem obvious that the power users who make up the Windows Insider programme wouldn't view losing a powerful feature for the sake of making things easier for those confused users as a good thing. Surely just making the interface clearer would be enough to help them?

Feeling less than positive myself, I posted some feedback to the Windows 10 User Voice suggesting an advanced option to turn the feature back on, which quickly picked up a few thousand votes from power users  - giving Microsoft the feedback it's been asking for. Similar feedback elsewhere on User Voice, and on the OneDrive User Voice site and through the Windows 10 feedback system, propelled the issue up the Microsoft charts.

Gabriel Aul, who runs the feedback system and the data analysis team that looks at it, tweeted a comparison of the issues for the current and previous builds; OneDrive hadn't been mentioned before but showed up seven times in the top 35 issues for the new build.

Jason Moore, group programme manager of the OneDrive team, posted on User Voice with the kind of details that should have been in the initial announcement about the changes. It wasn't just confused users Microsoft was tackling, he explained, but the problems with apps that didn't work with placeholder files - and the prospect of unlimited storage on OneDrive - that led to dropping them.

And the placeholder feature wasn't a switch that Microsoft had turned off and could flip back on. Instead of the simple change the announcement suggested, this is the first glimpse of an entirely new system - that doesn't have any support for placeholder files to turn on, and that as a very early build has not only fewer features but also the usual collection of bugs and glitches.

It's possible that the new OneDrive wasn't quite ready to go in a technical preview build, even though the Windows team has warned that not all builds will be as robust as the first ones. If you test a pre-release operating system, you should be prepared for problems.

The problem is, by pitching the new behaviour as a fix for more basic users, instead of explaining the issues the OneDrive team wanted to address and the cool new ideas it has for what you might be able to do in the future, Microsoft lost out on the patience testers might have had with a whole new system and got only the backlash against losing functionality.

Fear and debate

There's a fine line to walk between promising things that don't arrive (a lesson Longhorn taught the Windows team very painfully; Vista was both much delayed and far less ambitious than the early promises) and potentially stifling what other software developers might do if they didn't believe a feature was coming in a future Microsoft product, and not communicating clearly about what's happening.

Many years ago, Microsoft had a reputation for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt; it would talk about features far in the future as imminent and the resulting FUD was supposed to scare off competitors so Microsoft could take its time developing the features.

As a result of the unpopularity that caused, Microsoft now doesn't like talking about anything it can't guarantee to ship. For example, the Windows Server team probably has some bright ideas about what to do with the new Virtual Secure Mode in the next version, but it's only the Windows 10 team that's talking about it.

And it's equally reluctant to tell users of its current shipping product that it actually thinks one of the features in that software has problems and needs to be replaced, because that sounds like terrible publicity. 'Hey, this is broken and we're turning it off until it works properly' is a great way to get bad headlines.

But between the devil of over-promising, and the deep blue sea of slamming your own current products, is the sweet spot of being transparent with the testers that you've asked to give you their time as well as their opinions.

That means you have to be ready to say possibly uncomfortable things about the problems you're tackling, and to talk more clearly about your aims and your intentions, and what you're committing to. If it's too hard to commit to developing everything that needs to be in your new system in time, maybe you have to stick with your current flawed system a little longer; you don't set fire to your house until the new one is built and ready to move into, no matter how much better the new house is going to be. And if you decide to move before the roof is on, you have to explain why the new house is better carefully and honestly.

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It's clear that the OneDrive team cares about getting things right - for OneDrive for Business as well as OneDrive. The ideal would be to have online files work like any other file in Windows, in every application as well as in Explorer, without you ever having to go to the OneDrive site if you didn't want to.  You could search and browse and save into the folder tree but without using up too much storage. And you could have it work in a way that's clear and easy for the mainstream audience that Microsoft thinks is confused, as well as for the enthusiastic and passionate power users who love how OneDrive works in Windows 8.1 and are prepared to do extra work to manage it.

Getting to that would be worth going through a little pain in the technical preview, which isn't meant to be your working system anyway.

But to accept that pain, Microsoft has to be utterly clear to testers that these are the early days of a work in progress that will improve out of all recognition. There has to be a clear commitment that what we get in the future will handle those key issues of searching and browsing and saving against the online folder tree, even when you're offline.

So far, what's promised by OneDrive team group program manager Jason Moore is this: "In Windows 10… you’ll be able to search all of your files on OneDrive – even those that aren’t sync’ed to your PC – and access those files directly from the search results. And we’ll solve for the scenario of having a large photo collection in the cloud but limited disk space on your PC. Longer term, we’ll continue to improve the experience of OneDrive in Windows File Explorer, including bringing back key features of placeholders."

From the comments to Moore's statement, that may be too cautious and not a clear enough commitment for the OneDrive fans that they'll get a feature they rely on, because they didn't get those promises before they lost something they value. If you want people to trust you to change something they care about, you have to be open with them.

People also need to be clear about what Windows 10 feedback is for. Microsoft isn't crowdsourcing the feature list for Windows; it's giving you an early look at what's coming and listening to see how the features it's building will work for people so it can get them right, within all the usual parameters of limited time and resources. You can't create all the features 1.5 billion people want all at once. While Microsoft has heard loud and clear what the power users feel, that doesn't mean they can snap their fingers and make it happen.

But having created expectations with the feedback system, it's vital that the Windows team continues to talk about what's coming, in even more detail, with even more transparency about why features are changing and when things will happen.

Microsoft isn't Apple and it doesn't have the luxury of delivering a fait accompli when Windows 10 ships. Clamming up because the OneDrive discussion has been uncomfortable for Microsoft would be the wrong decision.

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