OneDrive For Business And Microsoft’s Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

OneDrive vs. OneDrive For Business - login screen

Someday the difference between OneDrive and OneDrive For Business will be easy to understand.

Someday OneDrive For Business will work smoothly and the two services will be consistent.

Someday the services will have a system for sharing files that makes sense for small businesses.

But not today.

Microsoft shared more information about the roadmap for OneDrive at two conferences last week and now we know that OneDrive and OneDrive For Business are still going to be confusing and messy for at least another year. There will be progress but most of the interesting changes will only arrive after Windows 10 is released and some fundamental problems are not going to be addressed for a long while.

The takeaway

The individual version of OneDrive is a wonder. Use it for everything – sync files among your computers and mobile devices, back up your photos from your phone, store OneNote notebooks online, and let it sync your Windows and Office settings behind the scenes.

The business version, OneDrive For Business, is a mess. It’s poorly understood and has some fundamental problems. It will improve but I don’t expect to be recommending it to anyone until we revisit Microsoft’s progress at the end of the year.

The difference between OneDrive and OneDrive For Business

There is no way to make this less confusing. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Microsoft has two completely different sets of services.

•  Services tied to a Microsoft account, referred to as home, personal or consumer.

You log into OneDrive with your Microsoft account.

•  Services tied to an Office 365 account, referred to as work, business, corporate, and sometimes school.

You log into OneDrive For Business with your business Office 365 account.

Both sets of credentials – for a Microsoft account and for a business Office 365 account – are an email address and a password, just like Amazon or your bank or any other online service. You can use the same email address. You can use the same password. But they are two separate accounts that access different things.

Your confusion is understandable. There should have been a better answer than creating two different sets of credentials for services run by the same company. Microsoft made it so much worse when it began using the name “Office 365” for products aimed at individuals, in addition to the business services that had been using the name.

There’s more information here about how to tell the difference between a Microsoft account and an Office 365 account.

The individual version of OneDrive is the one you’ve heard of. It’s deeply built into Windows 8 and Office 2013. In Windows 7 and 8, you can sync files between your computer and OneDrive from a magic folder on your computer, just like Dropbox. You can access files stored in OneDrive from any device – there are OneDrive apps for Windows, Mac, and every mobile device. Syncing works smoothly and reliably and scales so well that anyone with a subscription to the Office 365 Home has unlimited storage space for unlimited files.

Compare that to OneDrive For Business. It appears at the top when business users log into Office 365 webmail (confusingly labeled “OneDrive”). Superficially it is similar to the consumer version of OneDrive, a place where files can be stored online and accessed from computers and mobile devices. OneDrive For Business, though, has deep problems: the sync client on computers is buggy, there are odd limits on the number of files that can be synced, and the mobile apps are inconsistent.

One of the core problems with OneDrive For Business has been its all-or-nothing approach to syncing files: you can either sync all of your online files to your computer, or none of them. You can’t pick and choose. The term for it is “selective sync.” Having it missing from OneDrive For Business is an inexcusable flaw that has gone on too long.

The future of OneDrive For Business

Slowly – slowly! – Microsoft intends to smooth out the OneDrive experience and make it slightly less confusing.

The immediate goal is to improve the sync client for OneDrive For Business so I will stop saying nasty things about it. Microsoft is going to integrate it into the consumer OneDrive sync client, so you can switch between files stored in either service easily. Behind the scenes, both will have identical sync capabilities, including selective sync, and more or less both will run the same sync engine, even though the files are stored in different places on Microsoft’s servers.

According to the roadmap unveiled at the developer conference, the unified sync client will not be released until the fourth quarter of 2015 – after Windows 10 is released. An accompanying blog post from the OneDrive team says we should expect it “by the end of the year.” It exposes the weird holding pattern that Microsoft is in this year, where they are reduced to begging you to believe that everything will be better . . . eventually, but not now.

Microsoft has been steadily improving OneDrive for years, and it will continue to add features this year to both services, eventually bringing OneDrive For Business into parity with the consumer version. There will be improvements in PDF handling on mobile devices, better ties to Outlook, and the web interface for OneDrive For Business will be changed to mirror the consumer OneDrive web experience.

There will be a particularly useful feature in the next version of Office: from inside Outlook, you’ll be able to send a link to a file stored in OneDrive in a single step. Small businesses will finally have a convenient way to deal with sending large files by email.

The missing parts

The roadmap lists several features that are “planned – no timelines.” They are interesting improvements but hardly earthshaking – syncing files to mobile devices so they can be edited when you’re offline, for example. Swell! And so far away that the team won’t even promise a date when we’ll see it.

There are two related weaknesses in both versions of OneDrive that affect small businesses, and they don’t even figure in the roadmap – which, remember, goes out into the vague, barely foreseeable future.

Neither version of OneDrive allows you to sync folders to your computer that are shared with you. You can access them online in a web browser but you can’t view them in a folder on your computer and you can’t work on them offline.

In January a Microsoft VP said in passing that “we are working to sync shared folders by the summer.” There was no mention of it in the developer briefings last week. I can’t believe that such an important feature was left off the roadmap by accident. Perhaps we’ll be able to sync shared folders sometime this year but if so, Microsoft forgot to mention it during a week when they were proudly announcing all the upcoming OneDrive improvements for the next year.

The other fundamental weakness of OneDrive For Business comes from its poorly understood purpose. OneDrive For Business is a service for individuals to store their individual work files. It is not a service for companies to store shared files. Microsoft explicitly (if not clearly) says this in its OneDrive For Business documentation. Although files can be shared, the sharing is limited and poorly controlled. There are no fine-grained controls for permissions on shared files and no good methods to avoid collisions on files edited simultaneously. Shared files cannot be synced by anyone except the owner.

There are more details here about why OneDrive For Business is actually not a solution to the business problem of accessing shared files. Box.com was written from the ground up to meet the need for shared online files, and it shows. Here’s more info about why that makes a difference for small businesses.

There is nothing in the OneDrive roadmap to change that picture. OneDrive For Business is a place to store an individual’s business files. That’s all. No matter how it’s improved, that’s a limited niche.

I hate the confusion caused by two different services running with two different sets of credentials. For now, I continue to recommend that you use a Microsoft account to access files stored in the consumer version of OneDrive, and ignore OneDrive For Business until the end of the year, when the improved sync engine may make it worth revisiting.