Microsoft’s SkyDrive – Room for Improvement

SkyDrive is the online storage service offered by Microsoft. It’s been around since 2007, and has been through a number of iterations. It really started to come into its own with the introduction of Windows 8, where it started to assume a much more prominent role. Now with the imminent introduction of Windows 8.1, it is becoming more tightly integrated with the Windows operating system than ever, and the distinction between local and online (cloud) storage is becoming even more blurred.

There’s a good post (Inside SkyDrive) over at the Windows blog that describes some of this integration. However, it seems to me that there is still room for further improvement.

For example, the author of the post (Mona Akmal, Group Program Manager, SkyDrive apps) writes:

Many people use search to quickly access their files. So we’ve made search work just as you’d expect – SkyDrive files show up in search results just like your local files.

Er, no, that’s not true. The way that the search function works is to index the information held in the small placeholder files held locally on your PC. These placeholder files represent the real files held up on the SkyDrive service itself. At the moment, it seems that very little metadata is held in the placeholder files; only things such as the filename, and image thumbnails. So if I search for Descriptive Tags (aka Keywords) that are held in photo metadata, I get no results.

Let me illustrate this. In Windows 8, it is possible to have a local copy of your SkyDrive folders and files. Here’s a screenshot showing some of the SkyDrive folders that are held locally on my Desktop PC:

SkyDrive 01

These folders and the files within them are full local copies of the contents of my SkyDrive storage. They are also included in the scope of the Windows Search engine running on the PC, and because they contain all the metadata, they are also searchable. So, for example, If I search for pictures of our dog, Kai, I get 16 hits of SkyDrive photos that contain the Descriptive Tag: Kai:

SkyDrive 02

My ThinkPad Tablet, on the other hand, is running the Windows 8.1 Preview. In Windows 8.1, the contents of my SkyDrive storage is represented by placeholder files:

SkyDrive 03

To all intents and purposes, they look like the original Folders and Files held in my SkyDrive, but they are not; merely placeholders. A full local copy of a file is not present on the Tablet, unless I have edited the file. So now, if I search for photos of Kai, I get a sad little “No items match your search” message:

Skydrive 04

That’s because the placeholder files do not contain any photo metadata. This seems to me like a real limitation, particularly there seems to be no way of searching Descriptive Tags in photos in SkyDrive itself – even though the files themselves have the metadata.

Here, for example, is the SkyDrive App in Windows 8.1. Note how the Search Charm is not able to search SkyDrive, but only the web or local files:

SkyDrive 05

Searching for “Kai” produces only the results from my local libraries, not from SkyDrive:

SkyDrive 06

If I use Internet Explorer to browse SkyDrive directly, then I still can’t search on Descriptive Tags. Here’s the initial view of my SkyDrive:

SkyDrive 07

If I use the “Search SkyDrive” function at the top left, and search for “Kai”, then nothing is found:

SkyDrive 08

So the SkyDrive service is not indexing metadata such as the Descriptive Tags. This, by the way, is a long standing issue with the SkyDrive service. I’ve raised it on a number of occasions with the SkyDrive team, and nothing has changed.

In addition, the Windows 8.1 integration of SkyDrive is also not indexing metadata, so perhaps the Microsoft statement should be rewritten as:

Many people use search to quickly access their files. So we’ve made search work just not as you’d expect – SkyDrive files won’t always show up in search results unlike your local files.

Sigh.

Update 4 October 2013: If you read the comments below this post, you’ll see that members of the SkyDrive team have replied. The good news is that they are working to address the shortcomings of the current search experience – photo metadata is now being included in the placeholder files. That’s good to hear.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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12 Responses to Microsoft’s SkyDrive – Room for Improvement

  1. Ludwig says:

    Yes, sigh is right. SkyDrive in Windows 8.1 is far from being able to serve as a primary storage location. The Windows 7 way of having a local backup works quite well, especially when there is no Internet access.

  2. It has the same problem with MP3 files. Some of the MP3 metadata is downloaded, such as Title, Artist, and Album, but many things are missing (most notably Track # and Album Art, with Track # being the killer). The workaround is to make the files available offline, which basically causes all items in the selected folder to revert back to the old method of storing the entire file locally.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Stephen, thanks for pointing this out. I’m beginning to think that Microsoft has had a potentially good idea, but that they certainly haven’t thought it through.

  3. Since it is not storing a copy ot the picture locally it also makes for a very poor location for storing pictures that you may want to view as a slideshow – since every file must be downloaded to view. This new placeholder method may be a nice for tablets but is really poor for desktop PCs, especially those where the pictures files used to reside and are not only l “in the cloud.” This feature of Wwin 8.1. Like other ‘features’ in Win 8.1 should be made clear at set-up, but is not. Could be made clear – now you get a Windows system file copy dialog (in the background) – that is a head scratcher for files that previously had been saved locally. 10-15 years in and Flash still gives a 3+5 second notice “Press escape to exit full screen” yet MS does not give users notice that their whole system basically locks up for 10-30 seconds while a picture downloads from the net….Did they test these concepts in house before the beta? Or are all MS employees working on SurfacePro tablets?

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      I expect that all MS employees in the SkyDrive team have fast broadband connections. I, and I suspect a large proportion of MS customers, have a broadband connection that cannot be described as “fast”.

      • And if they are testing them across a LAN rather that a true ISP would really change the performance. MS has a history of innovation that falls flat. – - MESH/cloud drive was around before Dropbox – but Dropbox developed a system that ‘just works’ and works well. Better than the gDrive, Amazon and others. In fact the Win 8 version of SkyDrive is better than gDrive or Amazon, but the present update is a real step back. :O(

        I have an HP convertible tablet that came with XP and uses a stylus. When I upgraded to Win 8 – I lost the handwriting recognition and older pop-up keyboard that was much better than the current – system on screen keyboard.

        I might even toss out the new autocolor start screen tiles… nice idea, but needs to have user input. Some icons are very hard to see now and some text is invisible because white is the text color and combined with a light background…. why not give users the options to choose a back grouind and text color? That would be better.

  4. Hello. My name is Amnon and I am a Program Manager in SkyDrive. I worked on the smart file (placeholder) feature in Windows 8.1.
    Thanks for the feedback and comments. I’d like to provide some clarifications around the smart file feature of SkyDrive related to in your post and other comments made above.

    First, smart files are a user choice. You can mark any file, folder or your entire SkyDrive as available offline, which will fully download files without the need to edit them first. We added this feature to enable scenarios like browsing and accessing a 100GB SkyDrive account from a low-capacity tablet. Instead of choosing which folders you see and which you do not, which is the case with SkyDrive on Windows 8 and earlier, you will see everything you have even if your SkyDrive content is much bigger than your machine, and it’s up to you to decide what you want fully accessible on the computer or not, which is useful when your computer is offline. Smart files also make it much faster to seeing all your files when you log on to a new computer. If you have enough storage and want everything to sync down, you can do so.

    Regarding search experience, you are correct that not all metadata is extracted, however keywords are one of those properties that we now extract on the back-end and sync down as part of smart files. We are aware that not all photos in SkyDrive have this property extracted at this point in time and we’re working to remedy this. New photos will have their keywords searchable almost immediately, and eventually old ones will too alongside a lot of other metadata and even text in Office documents.

    Alexander, regarding photos – when you view a photo it is not fully downloaded, but instead a full-screen representation of it is downloaded if you’re using the Photos app, SkyDrive app or Windows Photo Viewer, which means much smaller network bandwidth than the full file would consume. If that is still too slow for your particular situation, I would suggest that you mark that folder to be available offline from either Explorer or the SkyDrive app, which will download the full photos or any other file type for that matter.

    I hope this helps you and your readers to understand smart files better and empower you to use it to your advantage.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Amnon, thanks for your reply. I’m very pleased to read that keyword metadata is being included in the search experience. It will bring a much-needed improvement.

  5. Omar Shahine says:

    Geoff-

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed post around your thoughts and impressions of the work in 8.1. We see the smart files feature as a real innovation in scaling large “SkyDrives” to small devices. It’s not the best thing for a desktop PC with a 1TB hard drive. On my desktop PC I select the setting to “sync all files offline” which we’ve made easy to configure for folks that know what that is and want that.

    But for people that want things in SkyDrive to have that data available across a number of devices, we feel smart files delivers on the promise of “all your files available” on all your devices without having to make hard (and sometimes impossible choices) about which subset of files should exist on a device. I have > 8GB in my camera roll for example and do not want all those photos “syncing” to my work PC or my phone.

    Regarding your comment:

    “I’m beginning to think that Microsoft has had a potentially good idea, but that they certainly haven’t thought it through.”

    It could be that we have a potentially good idea, we have thought it through, and you are just seeing a glimmer of the potential for this capability….

    Thanks again. I’ll make sure to share the post with the team.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Omar, thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I am very pleased to read in Amnon’s reply that keywords are now extracted and included in the search index. That will address one of the big shortcomings in the service as I currently see it. I hope that they will also be included in the search service on SkyDrive itself to mirror the search experience there.

  6. coryfitz1@gmail.com says:

    I still don’t see that Skydrive is keeping “descriptive tags” on photos.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      I don’t think that they are exposed on the SkyDrive web site, or included in searches, but some of them do seem to be making their way into the local placeholder files on a PC’s SkyDrive folder (Windows 8.1 version).

      So it’s still a fairly fractured experience at the moment. Still room for improvement.

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