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SkyDrive for Windows 8: Your Own Personal Cloud

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With the Consumer Preview release of Windows 8, Microsoft gives us a dedicated Metro-style app for accessing SkyDrive-hosted data. Tim Warner notes that we can also tap into SkyDrive from the Metro file browser or from any other Metro-style app. It is increasingly obvious that Microsoft takes cloud-based file storage seriously, and SkyDrive is rapidly becoming as robust as competing services such as Dropbox and Apple iCloud.
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Cloud computing means different things to different people. Enterprise cloud administrators confront a blistering array of standards, technologies, protocols, and implementation considerations. However, typical end users like you and me deal with cloud computing from a much more practical perspective:

My data is stored in in one or more remote data centers (the details of which I don't care about), and I can access that data from wherever I am in the world and with whatever Internet-enabled device I use at the time.

Two leading "private cloud" storage providers are Dropbox and Apple iCloud. With these services, your personal data (documents, photographs, media files, application settings, etc.) is synchronized between the vendor's remote data centers—the "cloud," in other words—and your desktop and mobile devices. The kernel idea at play here is ubiquitous data access.

Microsoft has operated in the cloud storage arena for a few years now. It introduced Windows Live Mesh in 2008 to great effect; in fact, we will revisit Live Mesh later on in this article.

Microsoft SkyDrive is a bit different from Mesh inasmuch as SkyDrive includes the Office Web Apps suite in addition to Internet-based file hosting. Thus, we can use SkyDrive to create and edit Microsoft Office applications by using browser-based versions of the following programs:

  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft PowerPoint
  • Microsoft OneNote

In my experience, Office Web Apps are more robust and reliable than their primary competition: Google Docs and Apple's iOS versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.

As of this writing, SkyDrive is free and offers users 25 GB of online file storage. However, there is plenty of evidence that Microsoft is planning a more Dropbox[nd]like pricing model that involves selling additional cloud storage space in tiered levels.

As you probably know, Microsoft released its "Consumer Preview" build of Windows 8 on February 20, 2012 to great fanfare. A centerpiece feature of this Windows 8 release is tight integration between the operating system and SkyDrive.

Prior to the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8, SkyDrive users relied upon either the SkyDrive.com Web site or a third-party hack or utility to interact with their cloud-based data. While it is true that Microsoft offers free SkyDrive iPhone and Windows Phone mobile apps, this isn't the same thing as cloud-to-PC synchronization.

In this article, we will describe and explain how we can interact with our SkyDrive data in three important ways:

  • From the Windows 8 Metro-style app
  • From Windows Explorer
  • From a pre[nd]Windows 8 computer

If you have already downloaded and installed the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you already know that you need to create a free Microsoft account, also known as a Live ID, to take advantage of Windows 8/SkyDrive integration. Once you have completed those tasks, we can proceed!

Using the Windows 8 Metro-Style App

The Windows 8 Metro user interface (UI) continues to generate controversy. How will enterprise administrators manage this brand-new, touch-centric UI? How can developers create Metro apps? How will Metro affect people who use Windows 8 from traditional computers by using a keyboard and mouse?

We will leave those cogent questions for a future article. In the meantime, we can boot Windows 8 and launch the built-in SkyDrive Metro app. The default view displays Live Tiles that represent our SkyDrive folders; the interface is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 The SkyDrive Metro-style app in Windows 8

As you can see in the figure, the Metro-style SkyDrive app shows you either content previews (in the case of photos and videos) or an app icon with running file totals (in the case of document files). This is the Live Tile technology in action.

Overall, I find the Metro SkyDrive interface to be intuitive to use. For instance, we can navigate into our Documents folder and click (or tap) a Microsoft Office file icon to view the document in Internet Explorer 10 with Office Web Apps (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2 Clicking a Microsoft Office document Live Tile in the Metro SkyDrive app...

Figure 3 ...opens the file in Internet Explorer 10 and Office Web Apps.

We can also access our SkyDrive content transparently from any Metro-style application. For instance, we can open the built-in Photos app and load images from our SkyDrive to browse (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 Tapping into SkyDrive from another Metro-style app

Do you understand the workflow? The key idea is that as long as we have a live Internet connection, we can tap into our SkyDrive content either from within the native SkyDrive app or from within another Metro-style app.

"Hold on for a minute!" you might ask. "What if my tablet computer is not connected to the Internet? What happens to the availability of my SkyDrive data?"

To anticipate this eventuality, Windows 8 enables us to download local copies of our cloud-based SkyDrive content. For example, we can open the SkyDrive app and right-click (if we have a mouse) or tap and hold (if we are using a touch interface) to invoke the context-sensitive menu bar. From the menu bar, we can select Save local to download a copy of the resource to the local file system on our device (see Figure 5).

Figure 5 Saving a local copy of a SkyDrive resource

Unless I am missing something obvious, however, the ability to synchronize the local copy of the file vis-à-vis its cloud-based counterpart is missing in the Consumer Preview release. Here's to hoping that Microsoft gives us offline SkyDrive synchronization in the final version of Windows 8.

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