OneDrive for Office 365: New but far from improved

First look: The Mac version has gone from nonfunctional to barely functional, joining the Windows version

You have to wonder how hard it can be to develop a cloud storage app that works. Dropbox and Box have each had one for years, and even Apple's iCloud Drive has become a reasonable service for one-person clouds in a couple years.

However, Microsoft's OneDrive for Office 365 (née OneDrive for Business) never seems to come out of the oven, though it's been cooking for years. This week, Microsoft began releasing its "next generation" (ha!) OneDrive client app for OS X and Windows with support for Office 365 business cloud storage. It can now do the very basics that the personal OneDrive app has done for some time -- but no more.

OneDrive for Business still can't meet the promises Microsoft has made for Office 365's corporate collaboration. OneDrive is a key block for cross-platform companies using Office 365 beyond the Office 2016 apps. Even with this week's release, it remains a key block.

First, the good news: If you have Windows 8, 9, or 10, or OS X 10.9 Mavericks or later, you can run the native OneDrive app to create a virtual drive on your computer for accessing files directly from your apps. But if you use Windows 8.1 -- the first workable version of Windows 8 for enterprise -- you can't access the OneDrive for Office 365 functionality; Microsoft won't have Windows 8.1 compatibility until spring 2016, it says. Wowza.

Gone in both Windows and OS X is the OneDrive for Business app, which on the Mac hasn't worked since late spring. Now, the OneDrive app that used to support only personal accounts will support your Office 365 business accounts, too -- as it already does on iOS and Android.

OneDrive: A tricky setup for immediate adopters

The new Windows OneDrive client is available for download, while the Mac version is pending review in the Mac App Store (both are free). But if you don't want to wait, Mac users can convert the existing, personal-only OneDrive app to support business storage, if they're willing to do a minor amount of Terminal use.

Windows users must also convert either the new or existing personal OneDrive apps using some registry trickery -- installing the revised OneDrive app is not sufficient, bizarrely.

For both Mac and Windows users, the current convert-based setup is a bit convoluted, so I advise only power users try to do it.

[ Update 4/6/16: Microsoft has finally released the OneDrive Mac client in the Mac App Store that allows access to both corporate and personal OneDrive accounts without the Terminal trickery previously mentioned. ]

OneDrive is barely functional on Mac, a bit moreso in Windows

Once that "next generation" OneDrive is going, you'll get the basic OneDrive functionality, such as the ability to drag files in and out as if you were working with an external drive. You can also save and open files from the virtual drive.

Believe it or not, on the Mac this is a new capability for OneDrive's business users. Before, you had to go to the Office 365 website or, for Office documents only, use the Office 2016 productivity apps to open and save them.

Like iOS and Android users, but unlike Mac users, Windows users can initiate sharing from the OneDrive virtual drive in File Explorer. But the rest of the Office 2016 apps don't see that local OneDrive virtual drive as an alias to the central cloud repository. Instead, they see it as only a local drive. That means you can't collaborate on documents opened from that local virtual drive, share it from within an Office 2016 app, or access email attachments stored there from your other devices.

Mac users can't share at all from the OneDrive virtual drive in the Finder. But the Office 2016 apps on the Mac have the same issue as Office 2016 apps in Windows: If you open files from the virtual drive, Office 365 thinks they're on a local drive, not in the central OneDrive repository.

As a result, users must be trained to never open Office files from the OneDrive virtual drive, but to do so instead from within the Office 2016 apps. (Those work well, using the same methods I've described for Office for iPad.) The OneDrive virtual drive should be used only to copy files to a common location for use by all your devices -- and to access non-Office files, such as PDF files or images edited in non-Microsoft apps.

Promises, promises: Corrected functionality delayed until spring 2016

Microsoft readily admits in its release notes that the collaboration features don't work correctly in either Windows or OS X. That correct operation is now promised for spring 2016, a big delay from the original December 2015 promise. Windows 8.1 compatibility is likewise delayed, punishing companies that took the chance and moved up from Windows 7.

This all leaves enterprises in an awkward if better position. You can now insist your Mac users store corporate files on the corporate OneDrive, rather than use unsanctioned services like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud Drive. (Let them use those or personal OneDrive for personal files, though) because users can finally work with all files from their Macs via the company's managed OneDrive in Office 365. 

But for both Mac and Windows users, you'll be confronted with the confusion that results from OneDrive's inability on the desktop to keep Office 365 aware of all the OneDrive files and thus have consistent access to -- and sharing of -- them regardless of what path the user chose to get to there.

If Microsoft doesn't fix OneDrive's collaboration flaws as now promised in spring 2016, enterprises should rethink their dependence on OneDrive and Microsoft's related collaboration tools. There are plenty of other tools that already do the job, and the integration they lack with Office 365 is an acceptable price for getting something that actually works.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.