Should SkyDrive Be In Your Cloud Mix?

Signing Up

I abandoned my Hotmail account in 2005. Rather than try to resurrect that login, I figured it was time for a fresh start. No great revelation here, but signing up for a new Microsoft account was easy. If you've already got one, you're a minute or two ahead of the game. Microsoft, as it should, adds layers of security protection here and elsewhere in SkyDrive. In this case, it was a simple verification email: "Call us overprotective, but we need to verify that [Email Address] is yours." Once you complete that verification, you're done.

Welcome to SkyDrive

Voila, I've got a SkyDrive account. I experienced zero issues using the Web version in browsers other than Internet Explorer. In general, I had no hiccups at all unless you count the lack of a native Android app. (More to come on that.) The online interface required very little learning. If it has the feel of an evolving product, that's because it is. I don't have quite enough files stored on SkyDrive to make search a crucial necessity yet, but it does seem to work well. Unless I suddenly go on a storage binge, the 7-GB starter account feels ample for an individual with my business-as-usual use cases. Upgrading is straightforward once I outgrow that allotment

Sharing: A Key Hurdle

Sharing at the folder and file level is a snap, including sending stuff to non-Windows and non-SkyDrive users. If it wasn't, that would be a deal-breaker. The relative lack of brand recognition may hurt SkyDrive if you share files with a wide external audience, but that could begin to change if and when Windows 8 and Office 2013 drive increased adoption. And ultimately, that's not really a problem--but it'd be nice to not have to explain what SkyDrive is.

Fast Install

Sharing at the folder and file level is a snap, including sending stuff to non-Windows and non-SkyDrive users. With Dropbox, I tend to use the desktop application much more than the Web interface, unless I'm traveling. Not surprisingly, SkyDrive's desktop app is pretty much the same thing--the familiar Windows Explorer file-and-folder system. They're identical, right down to the tiny green "check" icon that lets you know a file is synced. The installation was simple and fast, as it should be.

Office Web Apps Convenience

One of the more interesting SkyDrive features--and the one that might give Microsoft the best chance at taking market share from some of its competitors--is its Office Web Apps integration. This gives you the ability to create, view, and edit Office files from within the Web version of SkyDrive. If you're running a supported version of Office, you can open a Web App file in desktop mode in a click of a button, or save the file locally. I'm not an Office 365 user, and usually opt for Google Docs if I want to create and work on documents online. But I am a regular user of the traditional desktop versions of Office and found the SkyDrive-Web Apps integration productive and relatively pain-free. It is one of the features that's likely going to keep me coming back.

Groups: Viable For Small Teams

I don't have a ton of use for the Groups feature at the moment; email still tends to be the filesharing application I use most. But I see it as valuable in lots of SMB and virtual office scenarios. It's easy to use, and creating a custom email distribution and Group URL takes mere seconds. It's also one of those features that is rapidly becoming table stakes for business users. Given that SkyDrive, like Windows 8 in general, has a decidedly consumer-y feel, it was good to see that collaboration didn't get left out. I'm not sure SkyDrive yet packs a heavy-duty collaboration punch--those types of users are probably going to still go to SharePoint (or a competitor) for that, anyway--but the Groups feature makes it a viable way for smaller teams to stay connected.

Touches of Windows 8

In general, I found the user interface clean and easy-to-use--which isn't always the given it should be. There's not a lot of clutter, extra links, upsells, and so forth. It does have some decidedly don't-call-it-Metro touches, even on Windows 7--but this is the general design direction Microsoft seems to be headed in. Pictured, for example, is the main menu, which will send you to other Microsoft applications. For a service like SkyDrive, it seems like the design rule to live by is: Don't screw it up. And they didn't, in my opinion. I especially liked being able to toggle between list and thumbnail views when looking at Files.

What About Android?

There's no native SkyDrive app for Android users, which gave me pause--while I do most of my actual work on a PC, I want to be able to at least read and send files on my phone. That doesn't make me particularly unique these days. There are native apps for iOS and, of course, Windows Phone. That said, Microsoft features several third-party apps for using SkyDrive on an Android device. I tried Browser for SkyDrive (Free). As a number of Google Play reviewers note, it's not the prettiest thing. The jury's still out, but I wouldn't necessarily want to rely on this for regular business use. I found another free app, Android Explorer for SkyDrive, was easier to use and had a much cleaner interface. Android compatibility, while it exists, is an area where SkyDrive loses some points, particularly compared with Dropbox and Google Drive.

Manage Storage

Need more space? It doesn't take much to fill up 7 GB these days unless you're a diligent housekeeper or consistently light user. Like the other backup and storage providers out there, Microsoft will gladly give you more space for a relatively modest price. In fact, Microsoft is undercutting some of the established players--especially Dropbox. Adding 100 GB with SkyDrive will cost you $50 a year--that comes out to $4 and small change per month. Dropbox charges nearly twice that at $99 per year. (It also offers a monthly plan for $9.99.) That fits the generally aggressive pricing and upgrade offers for Windows 8 so far. Currently, 100 GB is the largest available plan for self-service upgrade on the SkyDrive site, whereas Dropbox Pro provides 500 GB and Dropbox Teams offers 1 TB or more for workgroups. Google Drive charges $4.99 month for 100 GB. SkyDrive's pricing strikes me as a clear play for the consumer market, but one that will benefit SMB and bring-your-own-cloud users inside larger enterprises.

Link To Accounts

Linked accounts are a hot security topic at the moment; you'll have to decide for yourself whether or not you're comfortable with the associated risks. But Microsoft does offer the requisite hookups to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, among others. This is actually a Microsoft account setting, rather than SkyDrive-specific. That merits mention because Flickr and Google are Windows 8 integrations, not SkyDrive connections. I don't have much use for linking SkyDrive to any of the sites currently offered--Google might be the one exception--so this wasn't an area of great concern. I suspect this list will grow for Windows 8 users, too.

What's Coming Next?

It's probably a safe bet that Microsoft will continue to invest in SkyDrive, particularly in terms of Windows 8 integration. Office 2013, for example, will save files to SkyDrive as a default setting. One feature I half-hoped to see already, but didn't, was optional Skype integration. In general, the current list of SkyDrive apps is a tad thin. It is interesting to note that there is a messaging module that features Facebook integration (pictured); it seems like Skype would be a natural fit here, given that Microsoft owns the platform.
I was generally impressed by my early experiences with SkyDrive and am going to continue using it beyond this initial test. That's saying something, because it would be very easy to walk away at this point. I am mildly concerned that future improvements and functionality, particularly on the apps front, will be laser-focused on Windows 8 and related applications, and won't offer much benefit for Windows 7 users. That would be a problem because a lot of the filesharing and storage platforms start to blend together for garden-variety use cases, so the apps and integration points help as differentiators. If I'm wrong and Microsoft doesn't ignore Windows 7 users on this front, SkyDrive might become I service I regularly rely on.