Microsoft has taken the wraps off a beta version of the Windows Live SkyDrive online storage service. While it has a lot to like, it is clearly still a beta offering.
Windows Live SkyDrive is part of Microsoft's Windows Live family of Web 2.0-style online offerings, but it lacks connections to other Microsoft services such as Hotmail, MSN Messenger, and the Live Spaces blogging service.
You receive 500MB of free online storage (though files can be no bigger than 50MB each), and you can store any type of file to a Private, Public, or Shared folder. No one except you, with your log-in name and password, can access Private folders; anyone on the Internet can view your Public folders, but only people you invite can see Shared folders. You can restrict invitees' access to certain Shared folders or grant them Contributor status for viewing, adding, modifying, and deleting items in a folder.
For now, invitees must already have a Microsoft user name and password before they can access a Shared folder -- no problem if they use Hotmail or Windows Messenger, or otherwise have an MSN or Windows Live ID, but an inconvenience if they don't. Microsoft says that a future release of the service will support sharing folders with folks who lack a Microsoft account.
I found Windows Live SkyDrive much easier to use than rival services such as XDrive and Streamload, but the service does lack some features that its competitors offer. XDrive allows you to stream stored audio files, for example, and Streamload performs automated backups and lets you synchronize data between two computers.
The Windows Live SkyDrive beta shows early signs of being a great component of Microsoft's vast empire of online services. Nevertheless, we'd like to see more features, such as the ability to save Hotmail e-mail attachments to SkyDrive folders or to create a slide show of images stored in Public folders. We'd also appreciate better service integration, along the lines of Google's Gmail and Docs & Spreadsheets. But Microsoft beats Google to the punch with this online backup tool -- even though it still needs work.