Microsoft today released a number of SkyDrive updates, including a major change to the online service itself, a preview version of the Windows application, and updates to the Windows Phone and iPhone apps. Together, these changes provide the best peek yet at how Microsoft is evolving SkyDrive to meet the needs of anywhere/anytime access to personal data.

As you may know, I’ve previously discussed everything that’s being implemented today. First, I covered the initial version of the Windows Phone mobile app in late December 2011 in SkyDrive Mobile: A Look At Microsoft's New Windows Phone And IPhone Apps. I wrote about the changes to the underlying service and the (then-coming) native applications in Are Native Apps, Paid Tiers Coming To SkyDrive? back in February. And of course Microsoft officially pre-announced the Windows SkyDrive-based application later than month; I wrote about that in Windows 8 + SkyDrive.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that back in January I quickly switched to OneNote and SkyDrive after a one month foray with Evernote. I couldn’t really explain why I made the change so quickly at the time, but what we’re finally seeing today in tangible form is the reason: I found out about the changes that Microsoft was making to SkyDrive and realized I’d want to be part of that when it happened. So I’ve been using the service a lot more since, seamlessly through OneNote and much less seamlessly otherwise. With today’s updates, it’s all getting better. And easier.

And the simplest way to understand that is to step through each, one by one.

SkyDrive service changes

As you probably know, SkyDrive has offered 25 GB of free storage for years now but had previously provided no option at all for paid storage tiers. That’s all changing.

First, the 25 GB freebie is going away, to be replaced by a new 7 GB free plan. That said, existing customers can take advantage of a limited time loyalty offer to retain that 25 GB limit. Now, it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that 7 GB isn’t just less than 25 GB, it’s a lot less. And while Microsoft provides some typically dense usage metrics to prove/justify this change, let’s just agree it’s less and move on.

Second, we’re getting the expected paid storage tiers. An additional 20 GB of storage will set you back $10 a year, while 50 GB costs $25 and 100 GB costs $50 per year. I opted for the largest allotment and would like more. (It doesn’t appear that you can stack these plans. But I’ll keep looking.)

skydrive_storage

Third, you can now upload/sync files up to 2 GB big to SkyDrive. That’s big enough for a DVD rip, though I’m not sure Microsoft will ever make it possible or easy to stream video from the service. But the point remains: It’s big enough for almost any reasonable need.

And fourth, if you install the SkyDrive application for Windows (below) on your PCs, you can remotely access their contents via the web using a feature called Remote Fetch. This isn’t a remote desktop session but rather a file system view that I think will make more sense for many people. This looks great.

skydrive_fetch

SkyDrive application for Windows

SkyDrive has offered tons of free storage for years, but it’s never provided a seamless or simple way to access it from the PCs and devices that people use so regularly. This was, believe it or, by design. In 2009, I was told that the company would never offer seamless, Explorer-based access to SkyDrive from Windows because people would actually use it. And that would require Microsoft to protect and replicate that data at great expense.

While I’m not sure exactly what changed since then—a combination of cheap, voluminous storage, software-based de-duplication technologies, and competitive pressure, I’m sure—Microsoft is finally removing the shackles and providing native support to SkyDrive storage in Windows 8 through the SkyDrive app (with its file picker integration), to Windows Phone with the SkyDrive mobile app (see below), and now to Windows 8 (desktop), Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Mac OS X Lion with the new SkyDrive application.

skydrive_application

I’ve been waiting eagerly to try that latter application. And if I’m seeing this as clearly as I think am I, it could very well be a replacement for Windows Live Mesh, though Microsoft, interestingly, provides some instructions for using both the SkyDrive application and Live Mesh together. That said, there is still one major limitation to using the SkyDrive application instead of Live Mesh: With the latter, you could put your synced folders throughout your file system, and I had multiple folders under Documents, one under Pictures, and so on. With the SkyDrive application, you have one SkyDrive folder—you know, like DropBox—and everything hangs off that.

On the flipside, you do have the ability to add individual SkyDrive-based folders to a library. So I can add my “SkyDrive camera roll” folder to the Pictures library if I’d like. That somewhat mitigates the one synced folder concern. Somewhat.

There’s also a side concern about syncing to SSD-based machines. With my SkyDrive account, I now have 125 GB of storage space in the cloud. But I can’t sync that much stuff to every single machine, especially SSD-based portables with a standard 128 GB of storage; it wouldn’t fit. Choosing which Live Mesh folders to sync was easy. Is it that easy to sync only the parts of SkyDrive you wish to sync? It doesn’t appear so.

skydrive_tray

Anyway, the SkyDrive application—which Microsoft annoyingly calls an “app,” a name I reserve for Metro-style apps—works pretty much as expected. I’ll need to spend more time with it and see how it works between PCs, but so far so good and the sync performance looks excellent.

SkyDrive Mobile app for Windows Phone and iPhone v2

Microsoft has updated its SkyDrive app for Windows Phone—and the one for iPhone, too, which is now iPad compatible—adding a number of interesting new features, including the ability to delete, rename, and move files in SkyDrive, share files and folders, as well as use the app in landscape mode.

skydrive_mobile

What’s still missing

There are still a few missing pieces to the SkyDrive puzzle, but I suspect they will be implemented by the time Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 ship this fall. Key among them is native support for different file types. With the arrival of the SkyDrive app, we can now very easily sync music files with the cloud, in addition to Office documents and photos. But the service doesn’t understand these types of files yet. And if you try and customize a SkyDrive-based folder for a content type, you’ll see that Documents and Photos are still the only types available. That’s going to change.

Anyway, today’s updates are something I’ve been waiting for since early this year, so I’m simultaneously glad to see it finally happening but also slightly overwhelmed by it all. For now, I’ll start moving more content to SkyDrive and examine what it’s like—or whether it’s yet possible—to access it elegantly from Windows 8 PCs and Windows Phones. I suspect it will be hit or miss for a while, but even in this early state it seems promising.