The long, promising (and frustrating) history of Microsoft’s consumer file sync services

Live Drive, SDrive, Project M, Folders, FolderShare, Windows Live Sync, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, OneDrive. Yes, Microsoft has been at this file syncing game for a long time. The company bought FolderShare back in November of 2005, and has been trying to get file syncing right ever since. This past week users were all in a huff because the latest build of Windows 10 Tech Preview changed the way OneDrive works on Windows 10, so much so that Microsoft took the time to respond publicly. Ed Bott posted on the issue late last week, documenting the flurry that’s been happening on UserVoice:

In a response to that same UserVoice page, OneDrive group program manager Jason Moore says:

“We hear the feedback on placeholders, and we agree that there many great things about the model – for example, being able to see all your files in the cloud even if they are not all sync’ed to your PC. However, we were not happy with how we built placeholders, and we got clear feedback that some customers were confused (for example, with files not being available when offline), and that some applications didn’t work well with placeholders and that sync reliability was not where we needed it to be.

So, we stepped back to take a fresh look at OneDrive in Windows. The changes we made are significant. We didn’t just “turn off” placeholders – we’re making fundamental improvements to how Sync works, focusing on reliability in all scenarios…”

In other words: “Sorry, we’re still working on this feature.”

While the changes have upset a number of users, it’s still early on in Windows 10’s development, and from the sounds of it some, if not all of the features missing from build 9879 may be back. But for longtime Microsoft enthusiasts, this isn’t anything new. In fact, it would be far more surprising if Microsoft *didn’t* change its file syncing services than if it did. It’s been an interesting journey, this wavering path toward file syncing Nirvana, and as one user back in 2008 said, “the grand vision of (Microsoft’s file syncing services) are unfortunately more vision than grand”.

Microsoft’s first well known foray into file syncing probably came to them when they acquired Ray Ozzie’s Groove Networks in March of 2005, and then FolderShare later that year. After rewriting FolderShare to work on Windows Server from its Linux roots, Microsoft released Windows Live FolderShare in 2008. About the same time, Microsoft also released a technology preview of Live Mesh. Live Mesh, a Ray Ozzie project, was based on FeedSync technology, a superset of RSS, allowing file syncing across devices and a cloud client. We posted on the history and naming gyrations of Live Mesh, back in 2010.

But Live Mesh, like the recent builds of OneDrive, had its problems. Shortly after our incantation of the history of Live Mesh, Ray Ozzie left Microsoft. Live Mesh was combined with Foldershare and released as “Windows Live Sync”, a beta, in June of 2010, and shortly after that was renamed again, to Windows Live Mesh, in August of 2010. But then in 2012, Microsoft consolidated Live Mesh with SkyDrive, another file syncing service that had been around since 2007. Just like with the recent OneDrive snafu, users lost much of the peripheral functionality of Live Mesh, including PC to PC (with no cloud interaction) sync, remote desktop, and settings sync for IE and Office. They weren’t happy then, either.

And now Microsoft is pulling back on features, again. Makes you wonder why they don’t just buy Dropbox and be done with it! What do you think, are you hopeful for OneDrive in Windows 10? Will Microsoft finally get file syncing right?

4 comments on “The long, promising (and frustrating) history of Microsoft’s consumer file sync services

  1. chinch987 says:

    Ballmer & co. would have tried to purchase Dropbox (after dismissing them initially as a fringe player) then totally bungle it. Give Satya 18 months of Win10 development to fix this & merge onedrive business & consumer. June/July or whenever RTM hits is a long time away. Onedrive has improved dramatically (wp backup, win backup, etc.) bringing back remote fetch the most notable missing feature from win7 skydrives app. Satya already has dropbox on board for Win10 (phone & tablet) to further expand Microsoft services (i.e. office online). That is a win-win.

  2. FremyCompany says:

    Big companies often fail to evolve at a fast pace because they have too much money. They have the potential to restart from scratch, and abuse it. All the time they spend starting from scratch is some time they can’t invest in new features. No software is perfect, so you can always find a reason to start over. #SadStoryOfMicrosoftB2C

  3. Scourge says:

    Live Mesh had so many awesome aspects to it, which typical of Microsoft, they then take away.

    The situation with OneDrive now obviously falls into the ‘too hard’ Basket that the Mesh P2P feature did.

    As Paul Thurrott said on Windows Weekly, there’s plenty of ways for them to make the online placeholders aspect less confusing for the average user, but they choose not to. If they’re dumbing it down to match the way the Apple client does it, that’s even worse.

  4. James Curran says:

    Microsoft’s best backup system was part of Windows Home Server. It worked automatically and the background, backed up every PC on the network, could handle both restoring a full image or just select files. Unfortunately, when WHS died and was replaced by (renamed, basically) Win8’s Storage Spaces that was the one feature that wasn’t included.