One of the great (if not the greatest) new features of Windows 8 and Office 13 is the integration with Microsoft's cloud storage platform called SkyDrive. At first glance, you might think that SkyDrive is nothing more than "Microsoft's version of Dropbox" and that its "integration" with Windows 8 is simply a default syncing of photos and documents.
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While there are many similarities between SkyDrive, Dropbox, and others (many gigabytes of storage, the ability to sync and access files across Windows, Mac, iOS, web), the real power of SkyDrive is that it offers deep and meaningful integration with Office 13 and Windows 8.
For example, traditional cloud storage services like Dropbox simply synchronize a folder on multiple devices via the cloud. (e.g. You get a fully synced "My Documents" folder on any device.) While that's fine, they don't fundamentally change the behavior of the OS or of any application. Files are saved, then synced. The end.
Of course since this simple cloud file sync is quickly becoming a commodity, we're seeing cloud storage providers like Dropbox and Box rush to "add value" and "differentiate" their offerings, though really it's all via external features like collaboration and version control.
In many ways these third-party cloud storage providers are legacy, since they only have access to the file system. (They're Henry Ford's fabled "faster horse" or Chetan Venkatesh's "electric typewriter.") Moving forward, will we even care about files when our devices and applications are directly cloud-enabled?
Moving forward: "real" app and device cloud integration
In a great blog post, Microsoft identifies three types of clouds that can be used in end user computing scenarios: the "file cloud" (Dropbox, Box), "device cloud" (syncs device settings like iCloud), and "app cloud" (cloud-based apps like iTunes or Netflix).
Clearly the file clouds were great when all of our devices, OSes, and apps were based around files, but moving forward, the device clouds and app clouds will rule. They will, quite simply, be able to provide a level of meaningful seamless integration that you can't get by schlepping a bunch of files around.
Taking a look at Windows 8 and Office 13, we see that Microsoft is firmly embracing the device cloud and app cloud via SkyDrive integration. Your custom dictionaries seamlessly move from device to device when you integrate your Windows Live ID. (The Live ID is the user ID that authenticates users Microsoft's cloud-based services like SkyDrive.) In Office 13, instead of simply saving and syncing .docx files (which Dropbox can do), SkyDrive allows users to richly edit and collaborate on those same documents with others via the web.
And, perhaps more importantly, SkyDrive-enabled documents bring the cloud and collaboration into the local "traditional" Office experience too. So even though you're using your local copy of Word to edit a local document, you can also collaborate, comment, markup, and chat about the document—all within the locally-running copy of Word, all thanks to SkyDrive. That's a level of app-based cloud integration that an external provider like Dropbox just can't touch.
Amazing! Too bad we're locked in now
These super-integrated cloud-enabled capabilities of Windows 8 and Office 13 are amazing! Problem is, they only work with Microsoft SkyDrive. You're completely locked in. You want to do this with Office? Then you're using SkyDrive. Done.
Of course Microsoft isn't alone in this lock-in. One of my favorite features of Mac OS X Mountain Lion is the integration with Apple's iCloud service. In this case, iCloud is very similar to SkyDrive on Windows 8. While any Mac user is welcome to install Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, or any other cloud storage service, only iCloud provides pervasive integration throughout the entire OS.
Can we have alternate cloud providers?
This leads to a key question: Do modern operating systems, devices, and applications need the ability to offer "true" integration with other cloud storage providers? If so, what would that look like?
Both Windows 8 and Mac OS X Mountain Lion offer OS-wide configuration options for "core" services like email, chat, contacts, Twitter, etc. Wouldn't it be great if users could just as easily configure which cloud service (or services) they'd like to use for data storage, collaboration, or personal settings synch? I'd love to have the same level of integration with Dropbox on my Mac versus iCloud.
There would several advantages to this. In addition to users being able to choose the cheapest service or the provider they perceive to be the most secure, giving users the ability to choose their own cloud provider would also mean that enterprises could choose their own providers (whether public or private) for their users. Or is this a level of control that the OS makers don't want to give up?