While Apple is given way too much credit for retroactively "inventing" consumer cloud computing services in iCloud--an offering that, by the way, won't debut until several months from now, Microsoft has in fact been offering a number of iCloud-like services for years. The trouble, as I pointed out in iCloud: How It Stacks Up Against Existing Solutions, is that Microsoft doesn't often go the final mile and really connect the pieces of its disparate offerings in all the ways that consumers expect.

For example, Microsoft offers this wonderful cloud storage solution called Windows Live SkyDrive (though most people, including those at Microsoft, simply call it SkyDrive), which provides 25 GB of free (free!) storage space. But it doesn't give you any easy way to access that storage, especially through the most obvious entry points, such as the Windows Explorer shell.

That's starting to change. And while I don't know whether we'll ever get the oft-requested shell integration, I can tell you that SkyDrive is about to get a lot more interesting and a lot more useful. And the update that's going to make that happen should be rolled out by the time you read this, or shortly thereafter.

But before getting to this update, I'd like to generally discuss some other aspects of Microsoft's renewed commitment to SkyDrive and making it more accessible to users. This bit isn't as specific as what I'm dubbing the "SkyDrive June 2011 update," but if you were worried about relying on Microsoft's consumer cloud solutions it may help remove any doubt.

Today, SkyDrive is accessed in just a few key ways. You can manually navigate to the service's web site, skydrive.live.com, and access your free online storage via what can only be described as a fairly rudimentary (and often inscrutable) interface:

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SkyDrive today

Creating folders and file navigation doesn't work the same in this interface as it does in, say, the more familiar Windows Explorer UI, and it's never really clear what features and functionality are available. For example, Microsoft has tied the (also free) Office Web Apps--web based versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint--to SkyDrive, but there's no clue to that in the old SkyDrive interface at all.

So, this was a bad UI, yes. But Microsoft explained to me in a recent briefing that it originally didn't feel that SkyDrive would be a destination for most people. Instead, the company figured that it would be infrastructure for other services and Windows applications, and that users would simply benefit from SkyDrive's voluminous storage indirectly. So it built SkyDrive tie-ins to Hotmail (for sending much larger attachments than would otherwise be possible), Windows Live Photo Gallery (for storing and sharing photos and short videos), Office and the Office Web Apps (for storing documents online) and so forth.

And give Microsoft some credit for trying to keep SkyDrive (and the other Windows Live services) compatible with all the popular web browsers of the day. When the service was first launched years ago, it was designed for the lowest common denominator from a web perspective, and so it looked (and still looks) antiquated compared to modern web sites.

But times change, as do consumer expectations. And with the understanding that its users now understand online storage specifically and cloud computing services in general, Microsoft is reexamining SkyDrive (and, presumably other products and services) with an eye towards evolving them to meet the needs of today. And while some of the changes I'd like to briefly (and generally) discuss here aren't part of the June 2011 update, they give a flavor of what's to come in the days ahead.

"Cloud storage is an enabler," SkyDrive senior product manager Anand Babu told me last week. "It needs to work with multiple devices, not just PCs, but Macs, phones, and other mobile devices. We need to have native support for SkyDrive available across all kinds of apps because cloud storage is more useful when it's integrated with apps."

This is happening on Windows Phone, too, of course. In the Mango release of that mobile OS, due this fall, Microsoft is adding SkyDrive integration to the Office hub, bolstering the original Windows Phone release's SkyDrive capabilities around auto photo uploading and Pictures hub integration. Through this integration you can very easily access all of your SkyDrive-based documents from the Office Mobile apps and, likewise, save new documents from the phone back to SkyDrive.

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SkyDrive integration in Windows Phone Mango

"We also have [SkyDrive app integration] today in Office and Windows Live Photo Gallery [on Windows]," he added, implying there was more to come. Babu wouldn't discuss future directions for SkyDrive with regards to device and non-Windows platform support, but one can only imagine the possibilities here. What he did discuss, in detail, was the changes Microsoft is making to SkyDrive on the web. And that is indeed the focus of the June 2011 update.

What's new in SkyDrive: June 2011

"Over 100 million people use SkyDrive," Babu told me, "and we've gotten lots of feedback. Based on our usage data, we know that a lot of people try it, but we also know that few of them are really engaged. So we have a lot of work to do."

The top bits of feedback were that SkyDrive is simply too slow--that antiquated web infrastructure wasn't just ugly and unusable, it was also frustratingly slow for users--and that navigation was confusing. So Microsoft has completely overhauled the SkyDrive web user experience, and thanks to the acceptance of modern web standards like HTML 5, CSS3, and JavaScript, and hardware acceleration in truly modern web browsers like Internet Explorer 9, the new UI looks and works like a native Windows app.

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The new version of the web service also better uses onscreen real estate. The right-mounted advertisement is now gone, even for non-paying customers, replaced by a context-sensitive Info Pane that provides different options based on what's selected. This Info Pane can be hidden if desired, too.

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SkyDrive is also a heck of a lot simpler now. The new UI features Explorer-style views for documents and related files, and a nice photo gallery view for pictures. Links to the Office web apps are readily available at the top of every SkyDrive screen, so you can always jump right into the Office Web Apps, no matter where you are in the UI.

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For users of Windows 7, SkyDrive also offers an elegant, pinnable taskbar button that offers Jump List-based links to common SkyDrive locations like My Files, Documents, and Photos, and to the Office Web Apps.

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SkyDrive is also picking up some useful functionality from related services. There's a Quick Views capability as in Hotmail, with filtered views of often-needed file subsets like recent documents and shared documents.

SkyDrive also integrates with Windows Live Groups, a little known but highly useful Windows Live service that lets individuals create free online groups of any kind--for families, soccer teams, friends, reunions, whatever--that have associated calendars, photo and document sharing, Messenger integration, and more. (And you thought Apple invented these capabilities. Shame on you.) This integration gives you quick access to the photos and documents you've shared with others (via Groups).

Speaking of rich media, the photo and video sharing features in SkyDrive just got a hundred times better too. Photos are now displayed in a very graphical way that should be familiar to users of the Zune PC software, though each large thumbnail is animated, giving you a peek at the contents of each folder.

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Performance is likewise dramatically better, whether you're navigating around folders of hundreds of files or zipping past photo thumbnails. And the new slideshow functionality is beautiful, with a desktop-like experience that will make sharing photos with others more elegant than before. It can also play H.264 video right in the browser window, with full hardware acceleration in supported browsers.

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Babu told me this was all accomplished with HTML 5 and related web standards technologies and requires no plugins of any kind. They use CSS3 for photo slideshow animations, of course, but also for window resizing, so that the photo thumbnail view rewraps seamlessly as you change the browser window size. To accommodate the changing needs of users, SkyDrive (and thus Hotmail, too) now supports files up to 100 MB in size, double the previous 50 MB limit. This provides for much bigger home video file uploads, as well as any other kind of large attachment or upload.

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Availability

Microsoft tells me that the June 2011 update for SkyDrive will go live on Monday, June 20, so it should be available by the time you read this or soon will be. Reviewers were not given early access to the service, so I was only able to watch a live remote demo at the time of this writing. But as one of the few people who actually uses SkyDrive pretty extensively, I'm excited by what I've seen and by what's been implied for future improvements. SkyDrive has always been more promise than reality, but this update is going to go a long ways towards fixing that. I can't wait to see what's next.