Microsoft SkyDrive Becomes A Hard Drive Surrogate With Windows 8.1

In a Microsoft SkyDrive blog post SkyDrive apps Group Program Manager Mona Akmal says it’s an exciting time to be in the cloud-storage business, with industry trends suggesting that even though devices have larger storage capacities (growing 25% per year), people’s data and files are growing significantly faster (around 50% per year), and that this is especially true for mobile devices.

Ms. Akmal notes that at SkyDrive the goal is to design cloud storage at the same scale as demand so people can have their files with them on any of their devices, and that with Windows 8.1, they’ve taken a big step towards that goal.

She says SkyDrive is deeply integrated into Windows, and that opening and saving files to SkyDrive is now as easy as saving to your internal hard drive, but with SkyDrive, your files are also available to you on your phone, tablet, desktop PC, and via, and that in addition to the basics, they’ve’ve come up with some creative and unique ways to address the needs of the increasing number of people who have tons of files but relatively small device hard drives.

To meet the challenge of how to provide access to all your SkyDrive files without actually downloading them, eating up precious local disk space and Internet bandwidth, Microsoft’s answer is what they refer to as “placeholder files.” Placeholder files look and feel like normal folders and files. You can tap or click a folder and see all the folders and files inside it. You can tap or click a file and it will open, you can edit it and close it. You can move, delete, copy, or rename placeholder files just like you would any folder or file. However, you only download the full file when you access it, and what is stored on your local drive instead is a placeholder file containing a thumbnail image along with some basic properties and file content. This means that the placeholder file is significantly smaller in size that the file in SkyDrive, but when you need to use it, the service downloads the full file for you.

For photos, since flipping through lots of pictures at a sitting is a common scenario, Skydrive wanted to give you fast scrolling of photos without taking up a lot of local disk space, so when you flip through photos, they download large thumbnail images instead of the actual files. They pre-fetch thumbnails to enable fast scrolling, and only when you want to edit a photo will the full file download to the local disk.

Ms. Akmal reports tht early data in the weeks since Windows 8.1 Preview was released suggests that this architecture is delivering on the goals they set for it and SkyDrive files are taking up less than 5% of the local disk space that they would’ve taken in the old system.

And if you’re on the go and want documents you’re working on or want to reference to be there when you lose Internet connectivity, and you want all your edits to make their way back up to SkyDrive when you get connected, the service can do just that without any need for manual configuration and setup. With the SkyDrive app, you’ll be able to mark any folders or files you want for offline access. Edits on this device or another device will be synchronized so that you’re always working with the latest file. And when you’re offline, it’s easy to tell which files are available for offline access. Most people tend to open the same files they recently opened, but the files they open often vary across different devices – so SkyDrive remembers those files and makes this unique to the device you’re using. SkyDrive files also show up in search results just like local files.

Any Windows Store app can use the Windows file picker to let you open, edit, and save any kind of file. In Windows 8.1, SkyDrive is built into the file picker – so every Windows Store app can save files directly to SkyDrive without any extra work. And the files will quietly get uploaded in the background so you don’t have to wait around. For example, if someone shares pictures with you in an email, you can save them to SkyDrive from the Mail app.

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