Microsoft’s Updated SkyDrive Service Could Put iCloud To Shame

Microsoft’s SkyDrive is an adequate cloud storage service (and one that boasts 17 million customers to boot), but it’s not something that the folks at Redmond can afford to leave in its current state. With Apple playing up their iCloud integration in their forthcoming OS X Mountain Lion update, SkyDrive program managers Mike Torres and Omar Shahine took to the Building Windows 8 blog to outline what’s next for their own cloud service.

At first glance, the changes seem incremental. SkyDrive will look prettier than it has before thanks to a handsome new Metro-styled app for Windows 8. It’s exactly what you would expect — users can swipe through their remotely-stored files, while third-party applications are able to access those SkyDrive files without any extra work needed from their developers. Expect to see this launch right alongside the Windows 8 consumer preview next week.

A new desktop app is also in the works, and will allow users to drag and drop files into their SkyDrive without the need for firing up a browser and navigating to the SkyDrive site. Frankly, it’s a feature that’s long overdue — the old process could be clumsy and time-consuming, and while it got the job done, nothing about it made it worth writing home about. Files as large as 2GB can be dragged into the SkyDrive, and the effect on overall performance is expected to be minimal.

That’s all well and good — Microsoft is taking steps to ease the friction that comes with storing and interacting with files in the cloud. But the last of their new features could put SkyDrive over the top for some users.

As it stands, the SkyDrive site offers very few frills, but users will soon be able to access files stored on their PCs remotely from the SkyDrive site. Internally called the “Forgot something?” feature (a name that I hope makes its way into the consumer release), users can access their devices while on the run so long as they’re running the SkyDrive desktop service. Microsoft doesn’t mention to what extent users will be able to dig through their own files — whether it’s just certain shared folders or the entirety of the filesystem — but it could be a real life-saver if it works as well as it looks in their demo video.

To offset the potential security risk this sort of access poses, Microsoft has set up a two-factor authentication scheme that requires the user to have both their device password, and access to a connected email account or mobile device. Though the authentication proces seems like a (necessary) hassle, the payoff is substantial — in addition to moving files back and forth, users can also stream video and view photo slideshows remotely. Windows Vista and 7 users will be able to join in the fun too, as the necessary SkyDrive desktop app will be made available for them in due course.

With these new tweaks and additions, SkyDrive has the potential to shift from purely serviceable to downright great. It’s about time too — from Dropbox to iCloud, there’s no shortage of contenders in the cloud storage space and Microsoft could use every advantage they can come up with.