While it’s clear that the new Metro environment in Windows 8 and RT is a new mobile platform, many users still don’t understand the implications of this distinction. Key among the confusions is SkyDrive, which is available in both Metro app and desktop application forms on Windows 8. These two programs offer completely different but complementary capabilities.

I’ve written about Metro being a mobile apps platform—and not an evolution of desktop Windows platforms as seen in Windows 7—many times. But if you’re still unclear on this distinction, please refer to Windows 8 Tip: Understand Metro’s Mobile Roots. Today, I’d like to focus on SkyDrive, because this is an ongoing source of confusion for users looking to Windows 8 (and RT).

SkyDrive is Microsoft’s cloud storage service. It wasn’t all that impressive for a few years there, but this year Microsoft has really turned things up to 11, to the point where SkyDrive isn’t just useful, it’s a no-brainer for anyone using Windows. I’ve incorporated SkyDrive into the heart of my daily workflow, as will most of you, I suspect, and as things improve even further down the line with advances in related Microsoft platforms like Office and Windows Phone, that integration will only broaden.

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SkyDrive on the web

I’ve also written about SkyDrive a lot, too, of course, so there’s little need to repeat all that here. If you’re still unclear on SkyDrive and why it’s so key to the Windows 8 user experience in particular, check out Windows 8 + SkyDrive, Windows 8 Tip: Use SkyDrive to Sync Your Documents and Pictures, and Outlook.com + SkyDrive: Microsoft Reimagines Cloud Storage. Put simply, it’s not possible to overstate the importance of SkyDrive to the entire Microsoft ecosystem and thus to those who use even some of these products.

But back to Windows 8.

Windows 8 ships with a Metro-style app for SkyDrive, it’s included “in box” with the OS. This app, as a Metro-style app, is a mobile app. And that means it works just like the SkyDrive app for Windows Phone, the SkyDrive app for iPhone/iPad (iOS), and the SkyDrive app for Android. That is, it provides a live view to the contents of your cloud-based SkyDrive storage … but only when you’re online, connected to the Internet. If you’re disconnected, you cannot use this app, and the files you are storing in SkyDrive are unavailable to you. It’s a mobile app. Metro is a mobile platform, remember.

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The SkyDrive Metro-style app is a mobile app

The SkyDrive app exists for one primary reason, and it has nothing to do with browsing your cloud-based storage from a native app. (The browser experience is just as nice.) It’s there so that your SkyDrive folder structure is available from the File Picker interface that’s available to all Metro-style apps. So when you’re looking to change the photo on your PC’s lock screen, the PC Settings interface for doing this opens File Picker and lets you navigate into SkyDrive, as well as your local file system and some other locations.

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Accessing SkyDrive contents from the Windows 8 File Picker

On the flipside, you can also save files to SkyDrive, again using any Metro-style app that uses the standard File Picker interface. So if you find a photo you like online using the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, yes, you could save it to your PC. But you could also save it to SkyDrive instead.

Of course, what many people are really looking for is a way to sync the contents of SkyDrive to their PC’s or device’s hard drive so that they can create new files, edit files, organize the folder structure, and so on, have all those changes replicate up to the cloud, and be able to access their content while offline. Microsoft makes such a solution, in its SkyDrive desktop application for Windows. This application is completely different from the SkyDrive (mobile, Metro-style) app that ships as part of Windows 8.

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The SkyDrive desktop application for Windows integrates cloud storage with File Explorer

(Sadly, Microsoft is confusing matters by retroactively calling everything an app. So in its terminology, the Windows desktop application is named the SkyDrive app for Windows. Honestly, it’s more of a plug-in for File Explorer than an app or application. But I will continue to refer to desktop applications as applications, in order to differentiate them from Metro-style mobile apps.)

When you install the SkyDrive application for Windows, it creates a SkyDrive folder in your PC’s file system and then syncs the entire contents of your SkyDrive cloud storage to that location. (We’re all hoping a future update to this application will allow us to decide which parts of the cloud storage get synced, but for now it’s all or nothing.) Everything is automatically kept in sync between your PCs and the SkyDrive.com cloud storage, so you can access your files, which are always up to date, from virtually anywhere.

You can—and should—have both the SkyDrive app and the SkyDrive desktop application on all Windows 8 PCs. It’s a bit confusing when you search for them, but you’ll figure it out.

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One OS, two SkyDrives

Note that because Windows RT is incompatible with externally installed Windows desktop applications, the SkyDrive desktop application is not available for Windows RT devices like the Surface with Windows RT. This means that you can only access your SkyDrive contents through the Metro-style app, which is bundled with RT. And that makes sense: Windows RT is a new mobile operating system, not a hybrid OS like Windows 8, which includes both mobile and desktop components.