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New OneDrive sync client may disrupt file-sharing market

A new sync client for One Drive is coming soon, but the offerings may be too Microsoft-centric to encourage defection from competing services, such as Box.

Microsoft is banking that a new sync engine will fix issues with OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, its cloud-based...

file-sharing services. But the new engine may solve a problem that Microsoft's competitors don't have. So will these engines make Microsoft more competitive in file-sharing or just keep it on par?

The ability to share and update files through the cloud is increasingly becoming a must-have for businesses, but cloud collaboration requires reliable file synchronization to ensure that everyone is on the same page.  

Microsoft's current state of file synchronization is one of disarray. Issues with sync are a common user complaint. Grievances include application compatibility problems, file operation failures and users believing files were available offline when they were not. Imagine the frustration when a user believes they could access a file on a long flight, only to discover it isn't available.

Part of the issue is Microsoft's collection of sync engines. There are three engines in production: OneDrive for Windows 7, Windows 8 and Mac, OneDrive for Windows 8.1 and OneDrive for Business -- which is basically the old Groove engine on steroids, built to interface with SharePoint. This does not even count the unified sync clients available for Android and Windows Phone, which work with both consumer and business versions of OneDrive. It's a wonder any work at all, given the testing matrix that must be required -- and, indeed, a couple of the clients are troublesome.

The new sync engine is scheduled to arrive this fall and will unify synchronization for OneDrive and OneDrive for Business, eliminating the need for multiple clients. It will also remove some synchronization limitations that would restrict heavy use. But will this pending upgrade make the OneDrive suite of products a better fit for their respective audiences? Let's survey the landscape.

OneDrive: A good consumer service

OneDrive -- previously known as SkyDrive -- is easily Microsoft's most mature cloud file sharing offering. Generally well-regarded, SkyDrive was around for several years and has been through several iterations. Windows 8.1 includes a built-in OneDrive client, while Windows 7 and Windows 8 require a downloaded client for integration within the operating system -- as opposed to managing files through the Web browser. While the service is not meant for business use -- there are no ways to integrate with Active Directory or much control over sharing and encryption -- it is often used in one-off, ad hoc scenarios.

Windows 8.1 also has the unique feature of allowing users to populate content from folders and OneDrive accounts -- even if it has not actually been synced. Those file placeholders make it easy to search for a given file and see a complete representation of OneDrive storage. However, Microsoft claims it confused offline users who thought they had access to those files because they were appearing in Windows Explorer.

The placeholder feature has become loved by many, but it's not available for Windows 10 or the upcoming unified OneDrive sync client. Its absence led to a mini-revolt on Microsoft's user site. The company promises this feature will be back, but no release date has been given.

OneDrive for Business: Not so much

Let's move to the business side. The problems with OneDrive for Business are myriad. The name of the product is confusing, as the service bears no technical resemblance to Microsoft's consumer cloud storage service. OneDrive for Business syncs to SharePoint libraries that are designed for teams, with extensive sharing, versioning and collaboration features that would be unnecessary for the average consumer. OneDrive for Business is not a replacement for a home directory or a typical SMB share on a file server; it's meant to be a place where colleagues and partners -- whether internal or outside the security perimeter -- could access relevant documents and have a common place to share and store them. OneDrive for Business has a sync limit of 20,000 files -- after that limit is reached, no further synchronization will occur. The client is also prone to crashing.

Unfortunately, many customers are choosing to use OneDrive for Business as a file server replacement in the cloud and they are finding it a bad experience. The client will regularly lose synchronization and try to resync everything, bogging down Internet connections. Large file shares with lots of small files accumulated over the years will technically fit inside a OneDrive for Business library, but they will not sync locally. The sync client encounters issues when it co-exists with the OneDrive consumer client, including the one built into Windows 8.1. And it is fairly expensive.

Put simply, I do not think OneDrive for Business is a production-quality service right now.

Will the new sync clients fix things?

Both OneDrive service offerings have always been Microsoft-centric, really attractive only to organizations that fully invested in either Windows 8 and up, SharePoint 2013 or both. Technologies such as Box or Dropbox were around long before Microsoft had a competitive file storage option, and both services are entrenched at many enterprises already. Google Drive has also been around for some time, offering cloud storage for companies that don't have a problem trusting Google. Box recently announced that it could interact directly with Office 365 for storing, writing and editing files directly in the browser, so even if you invest in Office 365, that doesn't mean you have to go whole hog into OneDrive for Business. And the subpar OneDrive for Business experience probably already drove businesses and customers to other services.

The bottom line is that the new OneDrive sync client is solving a problem that other competitors either never had or solved a while ago. It also presents established OneDrive users, who have become accustomed to handling files a certain way, with the prospect of being dragging through an unlearning process.

While the sync client should help Microsoft stabilize the platform and make it more attractive for ongoing use, it's unlikely we'll see organizations invested in other cloud file sharing services make wholesale migrations to OneDrive for Business.

Next Steps

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This was last published in July 2015

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