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One Sync to rule them all: How Microsoft plans to fix OneDrive

Online storage services will have converged client engine

Microsoft has revealed details of how it plans to fix the problematic file synchronisation between PCs and its online storage services.

Windows Client VP Chris Jones notes that Windows currently has three sync engines and two online services – OneDrive consumer and OneDrive for Business – each based on different technology.

The three client sync engines are: consumer OneDrive on Windows 7, 8 and Mac; OneDrive for Business on Windows; and OneDrive on Windows 8.1 – which has a new “placeholder” feature that shows all the files that exist online in Windows Explorer, but downloads them only on demand. The placeholder idea is ideal for devices like Ultrabooks or tablets, which have relatively small local storage on SSD.

Issues with the various sync engines are a common source of complaint among users. Another irritation is the lack of a OneDrive for Business client for the Mac – check this forum thread for details. Microsoft promised a client by the end of 2014, but it is in private preview until later in January.

The placeholder idea is brilliant, but Jones admits that this is “an area that needed improvement in reliability.” He refers to app compatibility problems, file operation failures, and users thinking files were available offline when they were not; an annoying discovery on a long flight, for example.

Microsoft now intends to “converge to a single sync engine.” This will be based on the consumer sync engine, not the business version based on Office Groove. That is good news, as the consumer version, while not always problem free, tends to be more reliable.

OneDrive clients for devices are also converging. A unified OneDrive app – in other words, one that covers both consumer and business – is already available for Android and Windows Phone, with iOS to follow later this month.

What about placeholders? This feature has been dropped in the latest Windows 10 preview, and will not make it back in time for the Windows 10 launch. That said, Jones promises that “the core capabilities of placeholders” will be added in a later update.

Jones also notes that that OneDrive sync has been gradually improving, though silent incremental updates. “We’ve made dramatic improvements in sync reliability and performance for Windows 7,” he says, and anecdotal evidence bears that out.

Making cloud storage work right is a make or break feature for Microsoft’s strategy to bring Office everywhere and sell its online services across all devices. A converged engine makes sense, but questions remain.

Why did Microsoft ever think that two different cloud storage services with nearly the same name, but different clients, was a sensible idea? Why has it taken so long to come up with a Mac client for OneDrive for Business, a core feature of Office 365? Why were earlier releases of the sync client so poor that “dramatic improvements” were necessary? Stumbles like these have driven some users to alternatives like Dropbox or Google Drive.

Nevertheless, it sounds like good news for Office 365 users who will bid a final farewell to the problematic groove.exe (the OneDrive for Business client). Microsoft, it seems, is determined to make this work.®

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