Wheels in the sky keep on turnin’

I’m really intrigued by online file storage. Some of you may disagree, but I think that it’s a first step toward a future where the vast majority of our digital activities, from working with productivity applications to more basic functions that are currently assigned to the OS, are conducted online. The physical devices we use to connect to our “stuff” will become less centralized, and we’ll be able to access features across multiple appliances. There will be 1000 years of peace on earth. So says Ray Ozzie, so say we all.

It’s already happening with e-mail. Back in the day, ISPs provided subscribers with an e-mail account that provided a modest amount of storage (you were lucky to get 5 MB of storage on the mail server), but most users configured their e-mail client to download messages and remove them from the server, either because of security concerns or limited mailbox capacity. As such, e-mail was chained to the user’s primary PC, just like documents and other files.

Fast forward a decade, and the vast majority of us use services like Windows Live Hotmail, Gmail, or Yahoo! Mail (sometimes all of the above). They all offer oodles (technical term) of storage, they’re accessible from any PC using a Web-based interface, and they’re not tied to a specific ISP (which is convenient, just in case you change providers). These days, we think nothing of trusting these services to manage this important communications channel. Some have even learned how to exploit the systems, sending files to themselves via e-mail to transfer them between PCs, using their mailboxes as an ad hoc file locker, and setting up multiple accounts to increase their storage limits. If I use a desktop program to manage my Hotmail data, then Microsoft offers Windows Live Mail and a nifty Outlook Connector, which got me thinking…

With the advent of Windows Live SkyDrive, Microsoft has created an online file storage tool with the potential to move us from primitive file hoarders to enlightened technophiles who really “live” in the cloud. Granted the service is still in its infancy, but Microsoft has been steadily increasing the allotted storage capacity, from 500 MB in the early days to a whopping 25 GB in the most recent update. Paired with a fast and reliable Internet connection, SkyDrive now has the capacity needed to become a viable replacement to the local computer’s hard drive as a repository for documents, photos, music, and videos. What SkyDrive needs now is better integration with your device(s).

SkyDrive’s current UI is a rather slick Website that’s just shy of being a full-blown personal FTP server. You can easily upload files (even drag and drop is supported using a browser add-in); rename, organize files, and set access permissions online; and download them back to any local PC (individually or collectively as a zip file). Not bad, especially considering the price (free).

However, until I can do everything online, I’m still going to have to plug my SkyDrive files into desktop-based programs to use them. To become an effective solution, SkyDrive desperately needs to become more tightly integrated with the desktop OS, so that its folders can function seamlessly with desktop applications. Office Live Workspace already sorta-kinda offers this functionality, but only from within (you guessed it) Microsoft Office programs. Plus, it’s a separate services that’s not currently integrated with SkyDrive.

What I propose is the SkyDrive Connector, which would allow users to create map points between physical folders on the local computer and their SkyDrive folders in the cloud. The connector would be a downloaded application (like the current Outlook Connector) that would be installed on the local computer. Using the connector, users would just work with local files in local folders, and it would take care of the heavy lifting to get everything uploaded neatly to SkyDrive.

My hypothetical SkyDrive Connector

My hypothetical SkyDrive Connector

I’m not necessarily talking about the kind of replication that Windows Live Mesh and/or Windows Live Sync affords (if I’m always connected, then I don’t need multiple copies floating around everywhere), but something that could handle the translation of data, so that my “legacy” desktop apps think they’re dealing with local files, while those files are really being streamed to/from SkyDrive behind the scenes. Users wouldn’t necessarily have to upload and download to access files; instead, they would just save and open files to local folders, and the connector would transfer them to SkyDrive.

Of course, I’m just an idea guy. I don’t have the technical know-how to actually build this doodad. Does anyone know if Microsoft (or someone else) already has this concept in the works?

I’m really looking forward to a day when I don’t have to worry about where my data happens to reside, as long as I can rely on it being secure, private, and accessible. I’d gladly trade-in huge hard drives for that kind of availability.

– Greg

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20 thoughts on “Wheels in the sky keep on turnin’

  1. thats a really interesting idea. It would be great if you could just open up your skydrive in any MS program like Office and just access all your files, then save it back to skydrive. It would be great having a local version of skydrive just like the FTP manager in Dreamweaver where you can download the content from your server, edit/delete things then upload them again so it’s still accessible anywhere.

  2. AAHhh, what a lovely idea! Sadly, there are numerous issues that make this a bit unworkable, at least for the time being.Size, speed, security, reliability, consumer resistance.Size first. In order for the whole ‘cloud’ idea to work, it has to capture a huge amount of commercial traffic to pay for it. Advertising revenues are drying up bigtime, and all of this stuff needs paying for somewhere along the line.Now, to a home user, 25gig and a 50mb max file size seems huge. To put it into perspective, just the vocal track of a three min. song recorded at industry standard is MUCH bigger than 50mb. As for video, even at preview quality, 50mb gives you less than 1.5 seconds! The internet is an economic system, and as such, needs a few ‘cash crops’ to sustain it, and as the current economic situation is proving, this doesn’t mean advertising, administration and services, (you need something to advertise, administer and service!) The digital worlds main cash crops are music and video, not the distribution, but the actual creating of the media. The established ‘music industry’ will never take to this, and in any case is dying on it’s feet. The film industry needs capacity that you can’t even dream of. So will you pay to use the service? (I would but it would have to be a much better service!)Next problem, speed, especially when it comes to online apps. If you only do simple word processing and basic photo editing you might get away with it (although even these simple comment boxes have trouble keeping up with me!). But again, an example from my own line of work, in music you need low latency, (typically, less than 2ms, but up to 10ms is acceptable), On a super fast internet connection, with no other traffic, and the wind in the right direction, the best I can possibly hope for is 3.8 seconds, which means that to become a viable alternative, the internet has to become over 3000 x faster! As for storage, skydrive is painfully slow. To back this up, I’ve just uploaded the same photo to my own server space, (in Canada) and to skydrive. To my server = 11 seconds, to skydrive = 187 seconds. Need I say more ?Security? Well, I’ll send you a pm about the latest flaw to surface!Reliability? Well, Live seem to think that a 48 hour downtime is ‘perfectly acceptable’. ’nuff said!Consumer resistance. People just aren’t doing what they’re told any more! The past few years have been littered with technology that people just don’t want. Remember hi-def audio? The standard CD was going to be dead and gone by 2004! If anything, most people opted for mp3, which is much lower quality, but more convenient. (Despite music industry moaning, CD sales worldwide are booming.) Blue-ray sales are tiny compared to what was expected, and probably only has another 18 months or so to go, simply because people are happy with DVD. The biggest selling video hardware at the moment is DVD players that will play XVID and other mp4 formats, so again, lower quality, but more convenient. Most people like to have their own software on their own computer, and store their files where they know they are safe,One final point, my girlfrriend recently published a book, and we had to get the files to the printer. It proved quicker to get on my bike and cycle the 12 miles there and back than to use the internet. We have the fastest connection available in the UK, and it still would have taken a day and a half!

  3. Just switch to Mac – after getting so frustrated with Vista I went out and bought a MacBook – the best notebook I’ve ever owned. Mac has a "skydrive" called a "cloud" or "iDisk" with 20GB of online disk storage through a $109/year subscription to MobileMe (you get what you pay for, has always been my philosophy). Why reinvent the wheel? Mac is decades ahead of microsoft. Check it out.

  4. Well ,this isn’t a mac vs PC issue, it’s an internet issue, which applies to all users. The fact that Mac have nicked the word ‘cloud’ and used it for something else is neither here nor there.On the other hand, I work in a lot of music studios, and get to use a lot of top-end Macs, which are ok, and easy to use, but I can never get over how amazingly sloooooow they are compared to a similar spec PC.

  5. I agree that current technologies make the prospect of streaming high-end media production files impractical, but it would work well enough for common document types and "consumer" quality media (such as music, photos, and compressed videos). A DivX-encoded AVI gives you 2 hours of DVD quality video at around 1 GB. And, as history has demonstrated, the network speed and reliability will come along. BTW, if SkyDrive lifted restrictions on the size of your library or individual files, and 99.999% uptime could be guaranteed, I’d be willing to pay for it.

  6. I’m working on a .NET library to integrate with SkyDrive. It isn’t too difficult then to write a shell extension that can integrate this into Windows Exlplorer.The more difficult task (and the reason for my .NET component) is automatically splitting files into 50MB chunks for storage and then recombining them when they are accessed. I’m thinking about just using the splitting feature in the ZIP compression tools to do this. A side benefit is that all files stored are automatically compressed and optionally encrypted.This is a great write-up of the idea, so I’ll post back here when I’ve got at least a prototype working.

  7. @ Raza- Mac’s are in no way ahead of PC’s. Sorry this is off topic, but take Apple’s attempy at dual core notebook computeing: I have a MacBook Pro and the amount of heat it produces is insane, which is made worse by the really poor design. There’s no consideration for cooling for such a powerful CPU. PC notebooks with dualcore CPU’s have huge fans either at the back or underneath. And as for apple touting their new OS (snow leopard) as supporting quadcore…well if they can’t even get dualcore right, how on earth are they going to do quadcore? Serisouly, if apple thought that the cooling was adequate enough then they really didn’t think it through. A "pro" model is going to be used for high powered computeing, not just sending emails and surfing the web. For the stuff people use MBP’s for, the cooling is in no way good enough. I work with live video and am a member of a forum of others who do this and practically all of us who have MBP’s have said how they get really really hot when doing the things we do. "Apple are decades ahead"….I don’t think so.

  8. Oh yeah, and recent benchmarks of quadcore CPU’s on both Mac’s and PC’s showed that the PC’s were actually faster than the macs and even funnier was that the Macs running windows were faster than the PC’s running windows and the Mac’s running OSX. The results were:"we had a discussion about it on tripzone recently, so I ran a quick test to compare OSX vs. WINDOWS XP on the same machine during rendering in AEI tested 2008 MBP (2x 2.4 GHz intel), a 2008 MAC PRO (8 x 3GHz intel) and G5 (2x 2.7GHz PPC)the results are8-core xp – 5:21 = 321 sec8-core osx – 5:56 = 356 secMBP win 9:14 = 554 secMBP osx 9:49 = 589 secMBP osx (using ae cs4) 9:54 = 594 secdual g5 ppc – 14:07 = 847 secFirst surprise is that rendering under windows can be roughly 10% faster on mbp.Second (not a surprise really) is that 8 core vs 2 core wins just 1.7 times(not 4 times as simple math would suggest)G5 with ith amazing PPC ultimate power surrenders to core duo completly."And MS have annouced that Windows 7 will also make use of GPU power as Snow Leopard will.

  9. What an amazing idea! It would be great if you didn’t even have to have the connector installed: it would better if Windows would just have a built-in way to access Windows Live SkyDrive, such as through Windows Explorer. And all the applications would know that, enabling you to quickly save to your SkyDrive from any "Save As" dialogue box. When you click "SkyDrive" in "Save As," a simple sign-in box would appear, enabling you to access your SkyDrive and browse the contents like you would a local disk. Perhaps this could be included as an update to Windows…

  10. Nice idea. I like it. BTW, how did you make that graphic image that is embedded in your post? It is very clean. MikeNorthville, Michigan

  11. Thanks, Mike. I assembled the graphic in PowerPoint 2007, and then I grabbed a screen cap using SnagIt and resized it to make it more suitable for the article. Finally, I added it to the article using Windows Live Writer, which took care of the expandable thumbnail effect.

  12. Greg said: There will be 1000 years of peace on earthMy reply: Is that because we’ll all quit whinging about losing everything off our dead hard drives?(!)

  13. @Ed Grubb: Yeah, very true. and, as with all notebooks, laptops, whateveryouwanttocallem; the build up of heat is considered such a hazard that many manuals tell you not to use them on your lap! Also, they started selling lappy cooling pads which is one of the first things I ever bought for mine. Just wish the thing would do as it says on the tin, coz it doesn’t. A table fan blowing over the laptop does a much better job of keeping it cold than a cooling pad does. The heat thing is a total nightmare sometimes. I have to be careful now as mine is a dual-core proc.

  14. So can we blame Apple for global warming from all that excess heat and smoke (from the smoke and mirrors marketing)? LOL!Anyway, this concept has been around for a while. I used to use xdrive which allowed you to install a small app into Windows that then mapped online storage to your X:/ drive. You could remap it to whatever you wanted, but it was accessible as a local drive. Alas, xdrive, as have many other online cloud storage products has recently met its demise.From what I’ve read there is no API for SkyDrive even though it has been "promised" and some are speculating that the API will be a part of the Mesh API. Anybody know anything about this?

  15. What we need is a combination of skydrive (with connector), googledocs (editable documents), and docstoc (easy previews of docs, xls, ppt, pdf) in proper format. The technology is there, I’m just waiting for someone to put it all together.Also, I have to say that LiveSync is a great program. It is the first microsoft app that I have used in a while where I felt that they had done it right.

  16. Live Sync is excellent; I wrote previous post about how I’m using it at home (http://tinyurl.com/bl5qa9). However, I wish they’d give the WL Sync website a wave 3 facelift to bring it inline with the other WL services (at least from a marketing perspective), and add a few more of Live Mesh’s remote desktop management features in there. Accessing a share via the web interface is a little clunky, and it doesn’t like my corporate firewall. I think we’ll get there eventually, but WL Sync is a step in the right direction.

  17. An excellent response that I whole-heartedly agree with! A connector like that would make SkyDrive instantly adoptable and easy for anyone to start using.

  18. While it may not quite be the "SkyDrive Connector" that I proposed, I’ve recently discovered a phenomenal tool called Gladinet Cloud Desktop (http://www.gladinet.com). It creates a virtual drive (Z:) that connects to WL SkyDrive, Google Docs and Picasa, AStorage, and Amazon S3. Once configured (and it may take a bit of effort to get past that part), you can access any of your online resources locally. I’ve only experimented with SkyDrive, but it works extremely well. You can create folders, move and copy files, etc., using the Windows Explorer interface. The only limitation (thus far) is the inability to manage permissions (any folders you create are automatically set as private). I’m still hopeful that WL will develop its own connector, but until then, I’m quite impressed with Gladient. Many thanks to fellow WL user Jeff for suggesting it!

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