Dark clouds hang in the sky as we take the escalator into the heart of Microsoft’s London HQ. It’s been unseasonably rainy, even for the British spring, but we’ve a date set to talk about an entirely different kind of cloud.
With eyes on the future, Pocket-lint sat down with Dharmesh Mehta, senior director Windows and Windows Live division, to talk SkyDrive. Following a sweeping range of updates to the service, Mehta ran us through Microsoft's vision for SkyDrive, talking Android, Apple and Dropbox on the way.
"Last week was a huge release for us. We released a whole new set of Windows apps, for Win8, Win7, Vista; did the same thing on Mac, we created Fetch, an iPad app, we did some updates for Win Phone and iPhone, and then a bunch of little things, like we don't just support our own Office formats," Mehta tells us, ordering his assembled demo devices.
So, what's the actual vision behind SkyDrive? What is it supposed to be? A digital locker like Dropbox, or an umbrella for online Microsoft services like Apple's iCloud? Mehta sees three clear cloud areas: file cloud, device cloud and app cloud.
"When we looked at this there were a lot of isolated offerings. There were a lot of people doing a file cloud like Dropbox. You have people doing device clouds - iCloud is a classic example of that - and then a classic one on app cloud is G Docs.
"There are definitely scenarios where you can see those being separate, but those are highly blurred. When we looked at SkyDrive, it was important for us to bring those together. We want to do all of this."
From some angles, SkyDrive looks like the "file cloud" to which Mehta refers. Open up the SkyDrive app on your Mac or PC, and you might struggle to see how it differs from a service like Dropbox.
However, land on SkyDrive.com and you've got the option to create new documents, not just add them to your cloud file store. Because SkyDrive includes web apps and you can create a Word document in any browser, it starts to feel like Google Drive. Of course, anything you create in SkyDrive is available from all angles, from your PC or Mac, from your mobile device running a SkyDrive app or from anything with a browser.
"You can always get to SkyDrive from a device with a browser, but for the most popular devices, we want an app experience, so it's much easier to interact with", Mehta tells us.
With iOS and WP7 covered, as well as the Mac and Windows PC platforms, there's an obvious omission. So we challenge the Microsoft man about Android.
"On Android we have two things today. Like any device with a browser you can go to SkyDrive.com and secondly we've exposed a bunch of APIs and people have created Android apps. We actually haven't built one, but there are apps you can get for SkyDrive."
That's not really "all" the most popular devices so we have to put it straight: is Microsoft going to release its own Android app?
"No. We don't have a specific plan right now.”
Reading between the lines, we get the feeling that Mehta isn't a huge fan of Google Docs/Drive, but there is a good point here. SkyDrive does integrate with Office nicely.
To give Metha his due, the more you explore SkyDrive, the more its vision comes comes to life. It isn't a single point service. Like iCloud, fire up your Windows Phone and you’ll find all your SkyDrive images are accessible as a folder as well as all of your mobile shots uploading to the service the moment you’ve taken then, but there is a distinction from iCloud. SkyDrive is about your stuff and the way you choose to access it.
As such, the newly designed Fetch function of SkyDrive is an interesting one. Enable the system on your PC and, so long as your computer is switched on, you'll get remote access to the files that you haven’t even included in your SkyDrive folder. What’s more, Fetch has been optimised for media too, so you get compression on the video if you want to stream it, and thumbnails for your images before you decide which are the ones you want.
"A tonne of students have Macs, I wish they didn't, but they do, and they have Office and SkyDrive plugs right in; it works really well."
"In no way do we feel with SkyDrive that we're done. There is a tonne more to come to.”
It's a message we hear four or five times during the 40 minutes or so that we spend exploring Microsoft’s cloud storage service but we can't help feeling that a lot of this is covering old ground. So we put that to Mehta. Hasn't Microsoft been doing a lot of this for some time, with little credit?
"To be self-critical, we have been in this space for some time, but it's been a bunch of disparate pieces and the stuff in SkyDrive we haven't really pulled together in a good way until the last 12 months.
"We're at the time now where we have enough of the pieces that it's time to go loud with it. You should start seeing SkyDrive in TV commercials in the next 6 to 9 months.
"It's a huge surface area when you think about the investment we're making on this across Microsoft products and our consumer offerings.
"As this starts to come out, think about every Windows customer, every Office customer, every WinPhone customer using SkyDrive and the things it's going to enable in those experiences. I'm very bullish about where we're going.
"To your comment that we've been here for a while, maybe not getting much credit: I'm pretty excited about where this one's going. I would not be excited to be a Dropbox shareholder."
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