SkyDrive is an Abysmal Failure in Windows 8.1

OK - I have to admit, I have used SkyDrive for several years now, and I have learned to become dependent on it because I like having several of my files easily accessible everywhere I go and on every device.

Apparently that was a big mistake on my part, because the SkyDrive team at Microsoft has slowly made SkyDrive a piece of crap. Having just set up my laptop with a brand-new installation of Windows 8.1 (which I installed from scratch), I can honestly say that SkyDrive in Windows 8.1 is now a complete failure as far as I am concerned. So unfortunately I'm probably going to have to switch to a third-party cloud storage application - and that sucks.

Before I discuss what's screwed up with SkyDrive in Windows 8.1, I should first mention that Microsoft used to make Windows Live Mesh, which was much better than SkyDrive. Mesh allowed you to choose any folder on your system and synchronize it across any machine that you specified. (In contrast, SkyDrive only synchronizes folders which are directly beneath the parent SkyDrive folder.) What's more, Mesh had a built-in remote desktop feature that was much like the built-in Windows Remote Desktop functionality - except that it actually worked. (If you've ever tried to manage a firewall and get the built-in Windows Remote Desktop functionality working over the Internet through your firewall and across a NAT, you know what I mean.) Unfortunately Microsoft's long-standing policy appears to be the following: if Microsoft has two competing technologies, choose the lesser of the two and ship that, and then deprecate the better technology. (At least that's what happened with SkyDrive and Mesh.)

Anyway - here are just a few of things things that are screwed up about SkyDrive in Windows 8.1:

In Windows 7, you had to manually choose to install the SkyDrive desktop functionality, so this was an opt-in feature. Of course, I installed SkyDrive, and I used it often. Unlike Windows Live Mesh, you had to drop files in the SkyDrive folder, which was really inconvenient. But that's also the way that DropBox works, so I'm sure that's what the engineers who were designing SkyDrive were trying to emulate.

In any event, after I installed SkyDrive on several of my systems, all of my SkyDrive-based files were physically stored on each of my local systems, and they were adequately synchronized across all machines where I installed SkyDrive. If I wanted to temporarily disable SkyDrive on any system, I could right-click on the SkyDrive System Tray icon and choose to close it.

However, once I installed Windows 8.1, everything changed. First of all SkyDrive is not optional - it's just there, and it appears to be always on. What's worse, my files weren't actually on my laptop anymore; they looked like they were locally stored, but they were more like ghost files which would actually download from the Internet whenever I tried to access a file. This was a pain in the butt for the system utilities which I was storing in my SkyDrive - most of them ceased to function because the EXE would download, but none of the supplemental DLL files would. As a direct result, all of my system utilities failed to run.

After some poking around I discovered that I could right-click on the SkyDrive folder and choose to make it available offline, which worked - albeit with hours of waiting for 25GB of files to download over Wi-Fi. But I need to point out that I had to go out of my way to make SkyDrive work the way that it used to; and more importantly, I had to discover on my own how to make something work the way that it always did in the past. This is known as a "Breaking Change," although I prefer to call that "Bad Design."

But today is when everything went from bad to worse. I needed to go to an appointment, so I brought my laptop with me because I thought that I would be able to do some work while I waited for my scheduled appointment time. I had a folder in my SkyDrive with some work-related files in it, so this seemed like something that should just work.

But it didn't work. In fact, it failed miserably.

What happened is this: I arrived at my appointment and booted my laptop, but when I opened my SkyDrive folder, everything was missing. Needless to say, I was more than a little alarmed. I opened Windows Explorer and navigated to the folder for my user profile, where I saw two folders that were both named "SkyDrive." Since Windows does not allow two folders with the same name in the same directory, I knew that this was a display anomaly which was probably caused by identical desktop.ini files in the two SkyDrive directories. I opened a command prompt and changed directories to my user profile folder, and the directory listing showed two folders: "SkyDrive" and SkyDrive (2)".

So I was correct in my assumption, and I verbally expressed my exasperation on the idiocy of this situation. ("What the heck...? Those stupid sons-of-biscuits...") I could immediately tell that Windows 8.1 had screwed something up, and my life was going to suck until I sorted it out.

I will spare you the details for everything that I tried to do, but it involved a lot of copying & renaming of files & folders - and after several hours of troubleshooting I still didn't have it resolved. But just to make things worse, while I was doing my troubleshooting I discovered that I suddenly had three folders under my user profile: "SkyDrive" and SkyDrive (2)," and "SkyDrive.old". I searched the Internet, and I found out that a lot of users have seen this problem.

A... lot... of... users...

There seemed to be two common consensuses: 1) this was clearly a bug in SkyDrive on Windows 8.1, and 2) SkyDrive now sucks for this reason.

One thing became clear to me: SkyDrive was going to continue to make my life miserable until I got it out of the way long enough for me to fix things. If you do some searching on the Internet, you can find ways to disable SkyDrive through Windows group policy, but I didn't want it permanently disabled - I just wanted it out of the way long enough to sort out the problem with multiple folders. Incidentally, logging out as my user account and logging in as the local administrator account did not make this easier since SkyDrive.exe runs at the system level.

Eventually I had to resort to backing up all of my multiple SkyDrive folders to an alternate location, and then running the following batch file while I manually cleaned up the multiple folders:

@echo off
for %%a in (explorer.exe skydrive.exe) do (
   wmic process where name='%%a' call terminate
goto :here

Note that I had to put these process termination statements in a loop because Windows would keep restarting both executables, thereby thwarting any repairs that I had managed to start.

Yes, this is a lame and prosaic approach to solving this problem, but releasing a major breaking change to a service upon which you hope everyone will depend is pretty darn lame, too. And making the new service so heinously awful that it's barely usable is unforgivably lame.

Eventually I got everything sorted out, and I would love to be able to write something definitive like, "You need to do X and Y and your system will be better." But truth-be-told, I spent so many hours trying so many things that I cannot be certain which specific steps resolved the issue. And I'm not about to attempt setting up a repro environment to test which steps to take. Sorry about that - but I simply don't want to mess with things now that I have SkyDrive working again.

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