Microsoft this week provided new information about how it will integrate its SkyDrive cloud-storage service with Windows 8 (and previous Windows versions), dramatically improving the interoperability between the two. Put simply, SkyDrive should see a huge surge in usage in the next year or two: This already-useful service is about to become indispensable.

Not coincidentally, I started writing an article called What I Use: SkyDrive + Live Mesh + OneNote about two weeks ago. More important events have conspired to steal my attention away, but I'll get that posted sometime in the coming weeks. But the rationale behind it is clear enough and emphasized by this week's revelations. If you use Microsoft software, SkyDrive is about to become central to what you do. Knowing this, I've already begun the transition.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. First, I'll look at what Microsoft revealed this week, and then I'll provide an overview of the company's previous posts about the integration between Windows 8 and SkyDrive. And finally, I'll sum up with some ideas about the future, since there's still more to come.

"As we developed Windows 8, we thought deeply about how SkyDrive and Mesh can take an even more active role in completing the [Windows] experience," Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky writes in the introduction to a new blog post on the Building Windows 8 Blog, "offering a cloud service for each and every Windows 8 customer and all their PCs (and phones), should you choose to use it."

The post then goes on to explain three major changes coming to Windows and SkyDrive: A SkyDrive Metro-style app for Windows 8, SkyDrive integration into the Windows 8 desktop environment (and related native access from Windows 7 and Vista), and an unexpected new "remote fetch" feature. Here's how this all breaks down:

SkyDrive Metro-style app for Windows 8

Microsoft sees SkyDrive as a mobile device cloud, a concept the software giant previously discussed in a post to the Inside Windows Live blog. Put simply, this means that SkyDrive will sit in the background, storing files of all kinds and propagating them automatically on Windows PCs, devices, and phones. Some of this functionality is available now--you can seamlessly access SkyDrive-based documents from Windows Phone 7.5, for example--but much more is coming.

In Windows 8, part of the native way in which you will be able to seamlessly access SkyDrive-based files of all kinds is via a new Metro-style SkDrive app that will surface your entire SkyDrive cloud--i.e. the files and folders you currently access mostly through the web--using a simple and friendly Metro-style user experience. (And yes, a preview version of this app will be included in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.)

It looks like so:

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The SkyDrive Metro-style app has two basic functions. First, it can be used as a standalone app, a friendly way to get at the content you store in SkyDrive. Second, it integrates deeply into the Windows Runtime (WinRT) by providing a File Picker interface that the OS or any other Metro-style app can use. So whenever you need to select a file--when changing your logon or desktop wallpaper, for example--or save a file, SkyDrive will be one of the locations available in the File Picker, alongside the local file system and other configured locations. (This is automatic if you choose to logon to Windows 8 with a Windows Live ID as, I suspect, many individuals will.)

SkyDrive is also available in the Metro environment via the Share charm. This provides some very useful functionality, including the ability to send documents or photos through the Mail app on Windows 8, seamlessly.

Let me just reiterate the cool bit here. SkyDrive is natively available from within any Metro-style app in Windows 8 for the purpose of finding or saving a file of any kind. This is the native SkyDrive integration Windows users have been asking for, but designed specifically for the Metro user experience.

SkyDrive integration with the Windows 8 desktop

Desktop users are not being left in the lurch, either. Windows 8 will also include native SkyDrive integration with the Windows 8 desktop, courtesy of Windows Explorer and, Microsoft says, desktop applications like Microsoft Office.

OK, OK. This is the native SkyDrive integration Windows users have been asking for. And now it's coming, not just to Windows 8, but also to Windows 7 and Vista.

"We've consistently heard from our most loyal customers that you want SkyDrive on the desktop, and we're happy to announce that we will be releasing a desktop app," Mike Torres and Omar Shahine write in the B8 post. "The benefits are obvious: easy drag-and-drop upload and download support for SkyDrive, anywhere access to your data, offline access, and the power of Windows Explorer to manage your files and folders. All of these things will be available with SkyDrive on the desktop."

The interesting bit here is that Microsoft hints at--but does not explicitly state--that the weird Chinese wall between SkyDrive and Mesh may be coming down in the Windows 8 timeframe too. That is, this native SkyDrive application for Windows 8, 7, and Vista provides a tiny, quick installer and will then sync all of your SkyDrive, and not just today's weird Mesh subset, between the cloud and your PCs. "As you update files on your PC, they’re uploaded immediately to the cloud–and as changes are made in the cloud or on another device, they'll sync back down to the PC," the post notes. "There's very little to manage or control and you won't be bugged with pop-ups or dialog boxes. You won't even need to know it's running."

There's also a hint in there that the rumored SkyDrive storage tiers I mentioned over the weekend in Are Native Apps, Paid Tiers Coming to SkyDrive? are indeed happening. Instead of noting that SkyDrive for the desktop will sync up to 25 GB of storage, the current limit, it says it will sync "up to your available quota of storage." Looks like tiered storage is indeed on the way.

Here are some shots of SkyDrive integration with the Windows desktop to get you excited.

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Remote Fetch

While most Windows users (or at least enthusiasts) have been clamoring for the above-stated functionality for a couple of years now, Microsoft did drop one unexpected surprise this week as well. It will providing a new SkyDrive/Windows 8 integration feature called Remote Fetch that really puts this service over the top. More important, this feature pretty much eliminates the need for third party remote access solutions such as LogMeIn Pro or Hamachi. (I use both of these solutions right now, not coincidentally.)

"With SkyDrive in Windows 8, you can also turn your entire PC into your own private cloud, and use its terabytes of local storage to easily access, browse, and stream your files from anywhere by simply fetching them from SkyDrive.com," the post explains. "Knowing that most people would still have files on a remote PC that weren't available through SkyDrive, we built a new feature that allows you to 'reach across' the Internet to access any file, stream videos, or view photo albums from a remote PC that is running SkyDrive on the desktop. For any remote folder or file, you can also choose to 'copy to SkyDrive,' so that you'll always have it across your devices."

This is powerful stuff.

It requires the PC on the other end to be always on, but then many people have desktop PCs sitting at home that are always on, as I do when I travel. It requires an additional bit of security, of course, since you don't want your home PC to be open to anyone on the Internet. So Microsoft is requiring a second factor of authentication, which will require entering a code that the company sends to your mobile phone or alternate email address. So get that Windows Live ID properly configured in anticipation of this functionality. (See how it's all coming together?)

But wait, there's more

The B8 post notes that all of today's SkyDrive functionality on the web will continue going forward (and based on the recent Office 15 announcement, one might expect it to be in fact improved), and that "there will be a lot more to say about SkyDrive as [the] story evolves." But it may be worth quickly summarizing what Microsoft previously said about Windows 8 and SkyDrive integration. Remember, folks, this isn't everything.

(Microsoft's initial discussions about this integration came via two previous B8 posts, Signing in to Windows 8 with a Windows Live ID and Extending "Windows 8" apps to the cloud with SkyDrive.)

Other Windows 8/SkyDrive integration pieces include: 

Windows 8 logon integration. In Windows 7 and previous Windows versions, individuals typically logon to their PCs via what's called a local user account. You can, however, link your local user account to your Windows Live ID (and, presumably to other online accounts, though I'm not aware of anyone else using this feature) in order to provide a more seamless experience between Windows and Live services. With Windows 8, however, you can now logon with your Windows Live ID directly, gaining that seamless integration automatically. And it's better than ever with Windows 8, since the OS itself works so closely with Live services, as noted below 

Windows 8 settings integration. When you logon with a Windows Live ID, most Windows settings you configure are synced from PC to PC, providing you with the same personalized experience on each device. These settings are controlled via the new Sync PC Settings control panel, which includes the settings groups Personalize, Themes, Ease of Access, Language Preferences, Apps, Web Browser, Other Stuff, and Some Passwords. 

Metro-style app integration. Apps you've purchased are available automatically on all of your Windows 8 PCs (on up to five of them), but it's not just apps availability. Each downloaded and purchased app syncs its settings and last-used state automatically to each of your PCs.

App and web site authentication. You can configure and manage multiple app and web site logons, save them with your Windows Live ID, and have them automatically applied as needed while logged on with that Windows Live ID.

To the future

OK, so we see deep integration between Windows 8 and SkyDrive, and even Explorer-based integration for Windows 7 and Vista users. Windows Phone users today can access Office documents from the Office hub, photos from the Pictures hub, and files of other kinds from the separate SkyDrive app. (And there's a version of the SkyDrive app on iOS, too.) And let's not forget the Windows Phone 8 stuff: Joe Belfiore apparently spoke of the ability to sync and access photos, music, and movies between devices and SkyDrive.

When you couple all this with a rumored OS X app, paid storage tiers up to an additional 100 GB, and a potential Mesh/SkyDrive merge, some exciting possibilities emerge. For me, I see the source I trust the most finally offering copious amounts of cloud storage in ways that are seamless on the devices that matter most. I see deep integration, too, especially with Windows and Windows 8, though presumably Xbox will be part of this soon as well.

(I'll also point out, as an aside, that the Windows Live name is barely mentioned in today's B8 post, and never in tandem with SkyDrive or Mesh. I wonder if that's coincidental. I doubt it.) 

Put simply, it looks like it's all coming together. Windows 8 and SkyDrive are both pretty incredible. Together, they may be unstoppable.