Microsoft's defense of OneDrive changes fails to silence critics

No sync placeholders in Windows 10; testers accuse company of again not heeding feedback


Microsoft's explanation of why it discarded an advanced feature in OneDrive on Windows 10 failed to curb angry users' continued criticism of the change.

"Windows 8.1 made OneDrive worth paying for, but with no placeholders in Windows 10, I will seriously start to consider where I put my money. You HAD a great product, until ... you regressed to one of the worst aspects of Windows 7," said a user identified as Mars on a long and still growing discussion thread.

"Have fun trying to get consumers to like your products again. This did it for me, I'm out," Mars wrote.

Mars' comment was one of more than 270 pleas from Windows 10 testers to restore placeholders, or has Microsoft called them, "smart files," within File Explorer, the file management tool in the OS.

In Windows 8.1, OneDrive does not automatically place actual copies of all files in the storage service on a device's local storage, but instead shows smart files for those still in the cloud. When clicked, a smart file kicks off a download to the device.

With Windows 10's latest update -- released Wednesday -- OneDrive uses "selective sync," in that users choose which files are synched with actual downloads. Other files remain on OneDrive, but do not show up in File Explorer. To see everything stored in the cloud, users must instead open a browser and comb through OneDrive's online interface.

Smart files allowed users to view the entire contents of OneDrive from File Explorer, browse or search for files, and then download only those they needed at that moment. Once downloaded and edited, files could be left on local storage or returned to OneDrive's cloud to save space on the limited amount available on a tablet, on a hybrid 2-in-1, like Microsoft's own Surface Pro 3, or on a notebook that used a SSD (solid-state drive).

On Friday, Jason Moore, a group program manager on the OneDrive team, put forward the company's position on the cloud storage service's synchronization behavior in Windows 10 Technical Preview, the under-construction build of the new operating system set to release in mid-2015.

"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," wrote Moore in a message added to the feature suggestion thread.

Moore was clear that smart files and the flexibility they provided would not be included in Windows 10. "In Windows 10, that means we’ll use selective sync instead of placeholders," Moore said.

Moore also said that all OneDrive files would be searchable from File Explorer -- presumably in a future Windows 10 Technical Preview update -- and argued that the change was necessary to make sync more reliable. "We're making fundamental improvements to how Sync works, focusing on reliability in all scenarios, bringing together OneDrive and OneDrive for Business in one sync engine, and making sure we have a model that can scale to unlimited storage," Moore said.

Other promises were more vague in both substance and timing. "Longer term, we'll continue to improve the experience of OneDrive in Windows File Explorer, including bringing back key features of placeholders," Moore wrote.

Users were having none of it, and blasted Microsoft, its explanation and the dropping of smart files. Comments posted to the thread after Moore's explanation went live were overwhelmingly negative.

In the thread, which grew more than four-fold in 36 hours, Windows 10 testers said Microsoft was repeating the mistakes of Windows 8 by not listening to feedback, contended that OneDrive's functionality had been crippled, and warned that they were rethinking their commitment to Windows and OneDrive.

"We all want Windows 10 to be great, so start listening to what we as so-called 'insiders' have to say. You'll thank us later," wrote Brendon on Saturday.

"It's not that there weren't problems with the way [OneDrive] worked -- sometimes apps weren't aware of it and would time out trying to open an offline file, and it's understandable that perhaps it confused some users," chimed in Filip Vanden Houte. "But [smart files] really sold the promise of transparent offline cloud hybrid file storage. It WORKED. The right approach to fixing it CANNOT BE to just roll it back two versions and start again."

"If you proceed as you are now and think it doesn't matter, explain it to me once again while I'm buying a Mac to replace my personal Windows PC for the first time in 30 years," said Th'e NetAvenger, who claimed he had once worked at Microsoft on the Windows engineering team. "If you feel placeholders are not doing their job, you need to offer either a hybrid solution or offer both the existing and new model. PERIOD."

Moore, however, said that Microsoft was listening. "Keep the feedback coming," he wrote to conclude his post. "We're working every day to improve OneDrive, and customer feedback is a hugely important part of that."

Others Windows 10 testers knocked Microsoft's promised solution -- a search tool in File Explorer to reveal documents and photos stored on OneDrive but not the device -- or simply refused to swallow what they read as public relations rambling.

"Simple search doesn't cut it," said Peter on Friday. "I have folders full of thousands [of] pictures and work files on projects, they're named whatever, the best solution can't be blind stabs in the dark through the search box."

"This is a forum full with power users, please don't PR talk us," chided Elan, also on Friday. "[A] few months ago the Windows 10 team leader stood on stage and spoke about how the Windows 10 team wants our feedback, listens to pro users etc. We are saying it loud and clear -- that feature was what made OneDrive what it is. We need it. We want it. We ask you to not let it die."

"I also suggest Microsoft provides specifics as to how this will work in the future or you risk having a riot on your hands. Vague generalizations will not suffice for them or for me," said Rob Segal.

"At this point, what's most frustrating is not the lost feature, which sucks, but the paternalistic **** coming from these guys," added one of several anonymous posters.

As Elan recounted, Microsoft pledged to listen to its customers as it crafted Windows 10. "We're inviting our most enthusiastic Windows customers to shape Windows 10 with us," said Terry Myerson, the company's top operating systems executive, in late September as he unveiled the new OS.

That invitation was a dramatic turnaround from Windows 8, which was led by Steven Sinofsky, who was ousted shortly after that edition's launch. Sinofsky had been denounced by both customers and analysts for a secretive approach to development, and for not listening to critics who, long before Windows 8's release, panned its two-in-one user interface (UI).

Since Windows 8's debut two years ago, Microsoft has been retreating from the touch-first philosophy, a backpedaling that will continue in Windows 10, which emphasizes the more traditional mouse-and-keyboard operation of personal computers.

The online request to restore placeholders/smart files had more than 3,400 votes as of early Saturday.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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