With a flurry of cross-platform mobile client releases for its cloud-based services, including today’s SkyDrive app, Microsoft is stepping up its game as it seeks to maximise the opportunities presented by the cloud. So is the long-awaited iPhone-friendly version of Office next? Guy Daniels reports.
It’s been a busy week for Microsoft and its cloud activities. On Monday it released a version of OneNote for the iPad, as well as updating the iPhone version. On the same day it released Lync 2010 for Windows Phone and announced that versions have also been submitted to the relevant stores for iPhone, iPad, Android and Symbian. The new Lync mobile clients allow instant messaging, call-related features and audio conferencing for enterprise customers using a Lync ID and having an installed office server. The release comes a year after it was first announced, back in late 2010.
Then yesterday it announced its SkyDrive for Windows Phone and Apple iOS. SkyDrive is Microsoft’s answer to Dropbox, the phenomenally successful, and yet very simple, cloud file-sharing service from two annoying young former MIT students that now has 45 million users worldwide and turned down a lucrative (read: nine figure…) acquisition offer from Steve Jobs himself. Arrogant, misguided or enlightened? Stupid more like.
Microsoft’s SkyDrive has been around for about four years on the web, and in June migrated to an HTML5-based site. The company describes it as “your personal cloud for your documents, notes, photos and videos”, accessible from any web browser anywhere in the world. Writing on the official Windows Live blog, Microsoft’s Mike Torres details the move to dedicated mobile apps, and why this wasn’t just confined to their own Windows Phone 7:
“As people start to rely more on their smartphones, the need to be able to access files on-the-go is important. We realize that not everyone who relies on SkyDrive for sharing photos or accessing Office documents uses Windows Phone. We have a long history of supporting iPhone customers with built-in support for Hotmail and with apps like Bing, Messenger, OneNote and now Skype. We believe you should have access to your personal content no matter which device you use.”
SkyDrive app for iPhone will available in 32 languages worldwide. However, irrespective of the device used, you will still get 25GB of free cloud storage space, the same as desktop users of Windows 7 and Vista have received. That’s significantly more than the paltry 2GB of free storage offered by Dropbox, or the 5GB offered by rival corporate start-up Box.
Yes, the SkyDrive app is going to be most useful for Windows users, rather than the Mac OS community, because of the greater range and depth of Microsoft’s online services for the PC.
But that’s still a significant potential user base, and must be giving the DropBox founders a few sleepless nights.
Microsoft says that in addition to their OneNote notebooks, iPhone customers can now access all of their files in SkyDrive, create folders, delete files, and share links to folders and files directly using the Mail app.
Also, the surprise addition of an iOS SkyDrive app gives rise to fresh speculation that Microsoft could be readying a native version of its Office software suite for Apple user – primarily for the iPad. Apple’s somewhat lacklustre productivity suite (Pages, Numbers and the far more useful Keynote) has gained a new lease of life, thanks to the absence of Office on the iPad, and are amongst the top grossing iOS apps. And with more and more corporate and SMBs embracing the iPad in the workplace, surely Microsoft is eying a slice of the action?
Microsoft revealed more details of its mobile cloud strategy at the end of November, when it referred to mobile device access as “table stakes for personal cloud storage”. It created three distinct categories of personal cloud storage: file clouds, device clouds and app clouds.
Both the original SkyDrive and rival Dropbox service fit into the first category of a ‘file cloud’, which Microsoft defines as “presenting your information to you in a traditional file and folder based metaphor”. In other words, a replacement for email sharing of documents, adding useful functions like syncronisation.
Apple’s iCloud offering fits into Microsoft’s second category of a ‘device cloud’, defined as hiding the file structure from users, “working behind the scenes so people can easily buy and use multiple devices. Today, device clouds are often proprietary to a brand or OS”.
Google Docs and Evernote fit into the third category of ‘App clouds’, which is where Microsoft is heading with its latest version of SkyDrive. It defines this category as being “built from the ground up for the cloud. Since they fully embrace the cloud, they can enable new ways to collaborate, organize, and share.”
Microsoft’s Omar Shahine described the move to app-centric sharing in a recent Windows blog post:
“As we look to the future, we know people increasingly think and work in a way that is ‘app-centric’, that is, they want something that just works from whatever application they are already using. So for example, when collaborating on a Word document, they want be able to share it in as few steps as possible – ideally without having to leave Word in order to set permissions or move it around to different folders. And they definitely don’t want to have to think about their folder structure or which email service their friends happen to use.”
Hence the change from the legacy SkyDrive service with its structure of discrete folders, as well as an acknowledgement that “sharing or collaborating with friends or colleagues across email services or other networks was often a complex and unreliable process”.
Back in October, Microsoft released results of a survey of SkyDrive.com use. It reported that there were 17 million stored files per month on the service, and that total uploaded content had reached 360 million files. In addition, five million devices accessed the service via mobile browsers during the month.
However, Microsoft is losing the cloud battle with its younger demographic. Its survey revealed that “less than 10 per cent of students in college consider using SkyDrive to access or share docs”. That’s “consider using”, note, and not actually “using”… Instead, they’re choosing Google Docs and Dropbox for their collaboration work. Hence the move by Microsoft to open up its service and make it more accessible. The app approach is a good start, and no doubt the continuation of the free 25GB of storage will help it gain market share.
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