Microsoft giveth, and it taketh away. At least, that's how it looks with the latest incarnation of the SkyDrive online storage service.
Unveiled this week, the preview of the new SkyDrive kicks in several improvements over its Web-based predecessor.
The old SkyDrive Web site separates documents that you upload from those synced via Live Mesh, creating a limited and clumsy workspace. The new preview edition ensures that all files are stored in one place, whether they're uploaded or synced from your PC.
You can now view and open all your SkyDrive files directly from Windows Explorer, eliminating the need to log into your SkyDrive Web site. You can also view and access the folders and files of any remote PC that's part of your SkyDrive cloud network.
Further, Microsoft has added a paid storage option. As your needs grow beyond the initial 7GB for new users and 25GB for existing users who opt in, you can pay for more space.
The company has also developed a preview of SkyDrive for OS X Lion and mobile apps for iOS and Windows Phone.
OK, all of that sounds great. So what's the problem?
In beefing up SkyDrive, Microsoft has also jettisoned the best parts of its Live Mesh syncing service.
Separate from SkyDrive, Live Mesh is a free peer-to-peer service that lets you sync specific folders and files across all your PCs. It's a valuable tool for anyone who needs to access the same documents on multiple PCs.
The beauty of Live Mesh, though, is that you can sync any folder anywhere on your hard drive without having to move or copy it to a specific location. You simply tell Live Mesh which folders to keep in sync on each PC, and it does the rest.
The new SkyDrive will sync your files. But unlike Live Mesh, it won't sync specific folders from anywhere on your PC.
Instead, it creates a folder on your PC called SkyDrive. Any subfolder or file you wish to sync has to be moved to that specific location. So what was once an automated process now becomes a manual and laborious task. It also can easily create problems for applications that want to store content in your Documents folder, for example.
In its recent blog on the new SkyDrive, Microsoft tried to justify removing the individual folder syncing. The company said that such an option "introduced too many unresolvable complexities across different PCs, with the path on one PC synchronizing to entirely different paths on other PCs and the cloud."
Sorry, I don't buy that. I don't think it's too difficult to figure out where your documents and photos and other files are stored on one PC versus another PC, especially if they're running the same operating system.
Microsoft does offer some suggestions for people disgruntled over the removal of this feature. But none of them are as smooth and convenient as the option offered by Live Mesh.
Further, Live Mesh doesn't require you to store your documents in the cloud. You can use it strictly on a peer-to-peer basis, syncing documents just among your own PCs. But SkyDrive forces you to store your files online, a concern for anyone who doesn't want their content in the cloud for safety or security reasons.
Live Mesh also lets you keep your Internet Explorer favorites in sync among your various PCs. But that too is missing in action from the new SkyDrive. Microsoft specifically says that the IE favorite syncing is unavailable in SkyDrive but is part of the Windows 8 beta, aka Consumer Preview. That's fine for folks running Windows 8. But what about people who plan to continue using Windows 7?
Or course, Live Mesh is still alive and well at this point. Microsoft hasn't announced any intention to bump it off. But the writing is clearly on the wall. Since the new SkyDrive offers both file storage and syncing, there won't be much room at the table for Live Mesh.
But before the service formally kicks the bucket, I hope Microsoft will listen to loyal Live Mesh users. Many have already responded to the company's blog complaining about the lack of peer-to-peer and invididual folder syncing in the new SkyDrive.
I'm sure Microsoft anticipated some backlash since it specifically set up a Web page explaining the new SkyDrive to Live Mesh users. But instead of trying to justify the changes, why can't Microsoft transfer some of the key benefits of Live Mesh over to SkyDrive, at least as an option?
SkyDrive is still in preview mode, so there's plenty of time to tweak it. If not, then I'm sure I'll be able to find another good file storage and syncing service out there somewhere.