Dec 14

Rising and Dying Clouds

This week saw the official announcement of the death of a tool that I have used extensively since its launch – Windows Live Mesh. In an email sent to the remaining Live Mesh users, Microsoft stated that “it makes sense to merge SkyDrive and Mesh into a single product for anytime and anywhere access to files”, so Live Mesh will be retired on February 13, 2013.

Ever since Live Mesh was initially released, Microsoft has been steadily improving its cloud offerings. One of those that I now use regularly is the Team Foundation service, available on tfs.visualstudio.com. TFS is an Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) service, meant for developers. Of course, there is also Office365, soon to become a lot more used, even by regular users, with the upcoming release of Office 2013 and its new subscription based purchasing model. SkyDrive, however, is the most relevant piece of Microsoft’s cloud strategy, in what regular users are concerned.

SkyDrive was revamped a few months ago and although the free storage offered was reduced to just 7 GB (for new users, as older users who took advantage of a timed offer can have 25 GB free), tiered, paid storage additional options are now available. One of the problems with SkyDrive was the difficulty to access it from a computer or other computing devices, other than from a browser, that is. The first sign of change in this area, was the excellent Windows Phone software, that integrated SkyDrive very well, allowing seamless access to photos, Office and other documents stored on SkyDrive. This easy access to SkyDrive was “ported” to Windows 8 where, like in Windows Phone 7.x and now Windows Phone 8, a Microsoft account can be used. Office 2013 takes good advantage of this easier access. While until now, OneNote was the single Office app that could easily use SkyDrive as the place to store, share and work cooperatively on OneNote documents, with Office 2013, the same ability to work cooperatively on documents stored on SkyDrive was extended to Word, Excel and Powerpoint. This new Office 2013 SkyDrive integration is really good and will make the cooperative work on Office documents a lot easier – at work, we have started to use it extensively, with great satisfaction and success.

The issue of SkyDrive integration with Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 8) was meant to be addressed by the SkyDrive app. However, the two versions of this app, the initial one, released a few months ago, and a very recent update, when compared to Windows Live Mesh, are rather poor.¬†Windows Live Mesh was (is) an excellent software tool. Among other features, it allowed syncing of folders, freely chosen by its users, between different computers and even different users. It also allowed the synchronization to be done with the “cloud” – a 5GB storage space provided in SkyDrive and reserved exclusively to this purpose.

Live Mesh did not require a preset folder organization – it allowed the sharing any folder, regardless of location and that folder could be mapped, in the destination computer, wherever desired. Through this freedom of mapping of the shared folders location, Live Mesh did not impose a way to organize one’s folder structure, it simply adapted to each user’s preferred drive organization scheme. That, and the fact that when synchronizing between computers located in a local network, Live Mesh did not use the internet to transfer the files, using the local network instead, were two of the signs of a cleverly, smartly designed software tool (we really don’t have enough of these!).

In what concerns file synchronization, the SkyDrive app fares much worse than Live Mesh. For users like me, who have relied on Live Mesh to share files with others, the app does not allow access to files that were initially shared by others. To do that, you still need to use your browser. On the other hand, when mapping shared folders in computers different from those where the sharing was initiated, there is no freedom to choose the destination path – everything goes under a root SkyDrive folder. You can choose where, in your local file system, this root folder goes, but that’s all that can be done. There is no way to map each individual folder, as it was possible with Live Mesh.

Of course, the SkyDrive app has some advantages over Live Mesh, the most relevant being the ability to allow access from Windows Explorer (or File Explorer, in Windows 8) to all of the available SkyDrive storage space, instead of just the previous 5 GB. For new users of the free service, however, this will just mean 2 extra GB, so not that much, actually, but still an advantage. To me, that’s probably the only advantage of the app, compared to Live Mesh. Yes, there are SkyDrive apps on other platforms, but I really couldn’t care less about it. I’m all in on Microsoft’s ecosystem – I own a Windows Phone, my computers run Windows in various flavors, from Vista to 8 (which I quite enjoy, by the way), I use Office and I develop using Visual Studio.

At this time, where the use of cloud based services and storage is on the rise, and where the advantages of that use are becoming clearer, the announced death of Live Mesh is bad news. It’s very hard to accept a degradation of functionality, once you get used to a better way. I can see no technical reasons for the Windows SkyDrive app not to offer the same file sharing and syncing abilities of Live Mesh. The SkyDrive app, though it has improved in its latest version, is still lacking. It is like Microsoft’s urge to change and adapt to fight Apple’s and Google’s competition has caused it to rush things and the end result are initial versions of products are that are, in some cases, glaringly lacking. Windows RT is a case in point, as the Metro side of Windows 8 seems to be, as the desktop versions of SkyDrive are. Different scales, of course, but can they be signs of the same problem?

It’s possible that a future version of the SkyDrive app will improve on the current limitations. I am not holding my breath, though. I will just have to find a replacement, to keep syncing my files as I want to. The good thing is that there are competing cloud alternatives (my own favorite backup tool, Acronis True 2013 offers sync functionality, which I need to check properly) and maybe there can be some advantages of not putting all my cloud based eggs in Microsoft’s basket.