Analysts: New backup-restore feature in Windows 8 welcome, but could be better

It's good that Microsoft is trying to simplify PC file backup with File History, but it needs cloud storage services support

A new file backup feature in Windows 8 that Microsoft trumpeted this week will help users protect their data but it is incomplete and far from unique, according to analysts.

The feature, called File History, is innovative because it makes backup and restore much simpler for users to set up, use and maintain, and because it stores multiple versions of each file, creating a history of its changes, according to Microsoft.

While usage of backup and restore utilities has been very low historically among Windows users, Microsoft expects it to be significantly higher in Windows 8, thanks to the enhancements in File History.

IDC analyst Al Gillen said the functionality in File History isn't ground-breaking, because there are many stand-alone utilities available that do similar things, including some that are inexpensive and even free.

The File History advantage is that it is already part of the OS. "The use of the feature is likely to be gated directly by how easy it is to find and use," Gillen said via email.

Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst, is skeptical about how simple end users will find File History to be, especially because he found Microsoft's explanation of how the feature can and can't interact with the company's SkyDrive cloud storage service to be confusing.

In its blog post detailing File History, Microsoft states that the feature doesn't work with cloud storage services -- it is designed to place file copies on external drives or on network locations. However, Microsoft outlines a roundabout way of synchronizing local SkyDrive folders with File History.

"They mention SkyDrive, but say it's not part of this. Hopefully it will be integrated in some way -- otherwise this could be a confusing and incomplete solution," Silver said via e-mail.

For David Johnson, a Forrester Research analyst, File History is a step in the right direction but it should do cloud storage backups.

"The key to success though will be making it obvious that the feature is there without annoying the user," he said via e-mail.

It's good that Microsoft is addressing what has become a critical issue for end users, analysts said.

"Having the ability to do regular backups is increasingly important," Gillen said.

However, it would have been better if the company had tackled the problem earlier. "It's about time," Silver said. "The loss of data and files due to hard drive failure, accidental deletion and other anomalies have been common on personal computers for years. Why has it taken so long to solve the problem once and for all?"

According to Microsoft, the process of setting up File History is simple. Users only need to turn on the feature and select the external drive or network location where the files will be stored. Once users do this, File History will run unassisted and transparently, activating itself every hour by default to back up files.

Users have the option of modifying File History's default settings to adjust elements like the frequency of backups, how long file copies are kept and whether certain folders should be excluded from the process.

Users should know that File History only backs up personal files, not the entire contents of a PC, so it copies the contents of the Libraries, Desktop, Favorites and Contacts folders, but will not back up the OS or applications.

Microsoft also designed File History to use system resources efficiently by factoring in, for example, how many applications are active and whether the device is plugged in to an outlet or running on batteries. File History also only copies files that have been modified by checking the NTFS (New Technology File System) change journal, instead of scanning each file individually.

File History was designed primarily for use by consumers, but it can also be used in workplace PCs, although Microsoft warns in its blog post that its use in enterprises may not comply with organizations' "security, access and retention policies." For this reason, Windows 8 has a group policy setting that lets IT administrators disable the feature in their company's PCs.

Microsoft said this week that it expects Windows 8 to be released to PC makers in August and to be available commercially in October.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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Juan Carlos Perez

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