Windows smartphone owners question Microsoft's commitment after OneDrive space reduction

Ironic: Microsoft pitched more storage last year to iPhone owners, but loudest complaints now come from Windows phone users

Windows Phone
Martyn Williams

Just as Apple got the size of its iOS upgrades under better control, Microsoft drastically slashed the free allotment of its OneDrive storage service.

Ironic? Absolutely: The OneDrive users who have complained the loudest about the reductions weren't iPhone owners -- the focus of Microsoft's 2014 storage expansion -- but Windows loyalists who had committed to the ecosystem, especially Windows smartphones, which continue to struggle in the marketplace.

In September 2014, Microsoft used negative news about Apple's iOS 8 to double the free space on its OneDrive cloud service. A month after Apple rolled out a diet-plan iOS 9, Microsoft pared OneDrive's free allowance by 83%.

Last year, some iPhone owners were forced to delete content before installing the then-new iOS 8 because of tight storage space on their smartphones and the large size of the new OS. Microsoft exploited the widespread reports of Apple's dilemma to tout OneDrive as an alternative to iOS users removing apps, music and documents -- but especially photographs -- to reclaim enough room to upgrade iPhones and iPads with skimpy local storage.

"While it might seem strange to announce new features on a Friday evening, we've been listening to the commentary about storage on the new iPhones released today and we wanted to get you more storage right away," wrote Douglas Pearce, a group program manager with the OneDrive team, in a Sept. 19, 2014, blog post. "We think you'll appreciate having more free storage while setting up your iPhone 6 or upgrading to iOS 8."

Pearce's offer was generous: Microsoft would increase the free storage capacity of OneDrive by 15GB -- doubling it from the then-standard 15GB to 30GB -- for anyone who installed the OneDrive iOS app and enabled automatic backup of photos and video to the storage service. Microsoft dubbed that feature "camera roll backup."

Users who installed the Android, Windows Phone, Windows and OS X versions of OneDrive on their devices also got the extra storage.

iOS 8, which debuted two days before Pearce announced the offer, was significantly larger than its forerunner, and required 5GB or more of available space to install. That was a hard sell for owners of 8GB and 16GB iPhones, who scrambled to delete content. Apple took heat for the debacle, and responded in 2015 with a slimmer iOS 9 that required 72% less free space to install. In tight situations, iOS 9 also asked the user whether they wanted to delete apps to make room, then handled both app deletion and re-installation.

Just weeks after Apple rolled out the slimmer iOS 9, Microsoft revamped OneDrive's storage policies, canceling the unlimited capacity of accounts tied to an Office 365 Home or Office 365 Personal subscription, ditching the 100GB and 200GB plans for new customers, and adding a 50GB plan with a price twice that of Apple's identical iCloud offer.

Most notable, however, was Microsoft's decision to reduce the free allotment from 15GB to 5GB -- again, the same as iCloud -- and discontinue the 15GB bonus camera roll. Those changes go into effect in early 2016, but Microsoft has not provided a definitive date.

OneDrive users who took Microsoft's 2014 camera roll bonus offer thus face an 83% contraction of their free storage space, from 30GB to 5GB.

Users will have time to transfer OneDrive content to another service; pony up $2 per month -- or $24 annually -- for the new 50GB plan; subscribe to Office 365 Home ($10 per month, $100 per year) or Office 365 Personal ($7/$70) to get a 1TB account; or delete some of what they're stored to bring the total under 5GB.

Once Microsoft notifies a user early next year, they will have 90 days to make one of those moves; failing to do so within that span will put the OneDrive account into a read-only mode that will let the user retrieve files from the cloud but not add any new content. Nine months after notification, Microsoft will lock the account: The user won't be able to access it in any fashion, not even to download a file or photograph from the service.

One year after notification, Microsoft may start deleting the files stored in the overstuffed OneDrive account.

Microsoft is also extending a free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal -- which comes with not only the 1TB of OneDrive space but also rights to install Office 2016 on one Windows PC or one Mac -- to those on a free ride with more than 5GB of content, and thus "affected by this change." Microsoft has not yet said how or where those users can claim the one-year subscription. After the one-year offer expires, customers' credit cards will be automatically dinged for the usual Office 365 Personal fees.

Although Microsoft promoted the 15GB camera roll bonus last year primarily to iPhone owners, the customers who beefed loudest last week about OneDrive's changes were those who had a Windows-powered smartphone.

"As a user of [a] Windows phone since 2012, I have relied on the free camera roll space," wrote Chad Klavetter on a petition filed this week on "So few phones have the option of expandable storage. OneDrive was touted as the solution. Now what am I supposed to do with my documents and photos from the past 3 years?"

"I've been a supporter of Microsoft, a beta tester and user of the OS, Windows Phone, etc.," said Ken Rylander. "This is awful. It makes me want to switch to a new phone and possibly another operating system. Why have a built-in cloud storage program that isn't good for anything but a few Word files? Really?"

As of Saturday, the petition had collected 6,200 virtual signatures.

Windows-powered smartphones represent a small minority of the devices being sold and currently in use, according to data from research firms.

In August, IDC reduced its 2015 forecast for Windows smartphones, predicting that 37 million would ship during the year, a number that would represent just 2.6% of all handsets. Three months earlier, IDC had forecast Windows phone shipments of 47 million, or 3.2% of the total.

More recently, Kantar pegged Windows phone ownership in the U.S. at 3.9%, down from 4.2% the year prior.

In light of those numbers, Windows Phone owners questioned Microsoft's decision to shrink OneDrive's free storage allotment.

"Just when I was looking forward to [finally] having a flagship Windows phone experience (and very intrigued by the direction it's headed with Continuum), Microsoft goes and does something that feels like it will short circuit that experience," said Richard King in one of the more than 3,400 comments about the OneDrive changes on Microsoft's own UserVoice service this week. "Crushing the basic/included/integrated cloud storage by over 80% just when your hardware is expanding on the idea of integrated cloud linked/based ecosystem is totally [expletives deleted]."

The "Give us back our storage" demand on UserVoice has garnered more than 60,000 "votes," the most of any OneDrive request by a large margin.

"Any Windows phone user that has been backing up photos/videos has easily surpassed 5GB. How about doing some user studies? Seems like you are more willing to kill Windows Phone every day," echoed Chad Bentz on UserVoice.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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