Windows RT's Achilles' heel: Cloud connections

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.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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.


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