What's new in OneDrive for Business?

OneDrive for Business now includes more options and control over sharing files, more options for working with files in the web interface and improved options for admins to manage the OneDrive client on users' PCs.

Video: How to use OneDrive Files On-Demand in Windows 10 A step-by-step guide to getting the most out of Microsoft's upgrade to its cloud storage service.

OneDrive has become a significant part of many users' workflows and Microsoft has been working to improve it, on the web, on Windows, and across other platforms. Sometimes that's annoying, like a new File Save dialog in Word that tries to force users to put files in OneDrive but points at the root of their files rather than the folders they use most. But mostly, it's helpful features and more admin tools.

Syncing smarter

Perhaps the biggest new arrival is support for its Files on Demand feature on macOS Mojave and later. If you're using a Mac, access to OneDrive without having to sync all your content is a welcome update, especially if you're using an older Mac with a small SSD where copying an entire OneDrive could have been problematic. Once Files on Demand has been enabled you can see remote files as if they were part of the macOS file system (even when you're not online), recent files will automatically be available offline, and you can pick specific files to always have available.

Microsoft has extended Files on Demand to Windows Server 2019, as part of the desktop experience. If you're doing VDI, that means users hosted on Windows Server will get access to their OneDrive files and admins will also be able to share important files and tools between machines.

Files on Demand is managed by Storage Sense on Windows PCs, which can be more aggressive about cleaning up files than you might want. Microsoft now provides a set of group policies that control how it removes cloud-stored files on PCs, so you won't find yourself on a plane in the middle of the Atlantic unable to access a file you were expecting to be available. Admins can also now set Team Site libraries that should automatically sync through OneDrive (they'll appear under the Shared Libraries list): use the 'Configure team site libraries to sync automatically' group policy (and remember that it doesn't work for on-premises SharePoint sites).

Differential sync now works with all kinds of files, not just Office documents, so making a small change to a large video file won't mean the whole file has to upload again. When your laptop is running on battery, OneDrive sync pauses -- but that means new files don't upload and online files aren't available. That's inconvenient and will be changing again, but in the meantime you can choose in OneDrive settings on your PC what's paused and what keeps working when you're on battery. You will also get warnings if files haven't uploaded before you shut down your PC.

There are also new warnings coming in the OneDrive sync client to help you understand why a file isn't syncing. The first one covers file names that work on your PC but aren't allowed in OneDrive or SharePoint. If you delete more than 200 OneDrive or Team Site files from your device, the sync client will ask you to confirm that, in case it was an accident. If you often delete large numbers of files, check the 'Always remove files' box to skip future warnings. Similarly, if an unusually large number of files are deleted from your OneDrive, you'll get an email notification with a link to the Recycle Bin, in case it's malware removing your files -- but again, you can opt out of these messages if you routinely remove files. 

Sharing but with security

As well as sync, the big advantage of cloud storage like OneDrive is that it simplifies sharing files -- especially for large files in specialised file formats, like CAD files and other complex illustrations that need their own viewers (or the expensive original software). OneDrive's web front-end solves that problem with its built-in preview tools, making it easy to see files anywhere and share them with colleagues. You don't need to have the software installed, or even leave your browser. Microsoft regularly adds new file formats to its preview tooling, and the latest releases added support for AutoCAD and for 360-degree images. These tend to be large files, so rendering on-the-fly in OneDrive keeps bandwidth requirements to a minimum and ensures you don't fill hard drive space with copies of files you just wanted to glance at.

OneDrive's preview tools go further than simply viewing files. Now they also offer basic editing features, allowing you to add comments to files and even annotate PDFs. It's often easier to explain a comment inline rather than in email, and this feature keeps it all in one file-viewing workflow. Office now supports @mentions, notifying users if they're mentioned inside an Office document saved on OneDrive. Notifications come by email, with the relevant section of a file. You also get a link to OneDrive where you can download or edit the document.

Admins can already set OneDrive sharing links that anyone can open to expire after a set number of days (up to 720); if you want to customise that for each Team Site, you can now do it through the SharePoint Online Management Shell (it will be in the SharePoint admin portal soon). But if you want to put more security controls on sharing from OneDrive but also simplify sharing, you can do that with Azure AD B2B.

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This is the new version of AD federation and lets you connect to partners, suppliers, contractors and other organizations in your supply chain. The people your employees are collaborating with get a guest account in Azure AD; they can use that to sign in and see all the content shared with them, but employees can also send them sharing links with a One Time Password, even if they don't have the Microsoft account usually required.

That's different from the new password-protected links, where you can set a custom password and mark a file to share with anyone who has the URL -- that way, even if the link is published more widely than you expected, only people you give the password to get access. OTP Secure Links are for sharing with specific people, and you can even enforce MFA. 

With AAD B2B users can not just share files with external colleagues, but also have those sync into their own OneDrive. This means they're available to work on in their normal Windows applications like their own OneDrive files, which saves all that back-and-forth in email trying to find the shared file.

Coming soon

The October 2019 updates for OneDrive add some useful options for admins. To date, moving known folders like Documents to OneDrive so they're not only saved locally has needed the folders to be on the same volume as the OneDrive folder; now they can be on different volumes. And instead of installing the OneDrive sync client for every user account, admins can set it to install in the Program files (x86) directory; that's easier for multi-user systems like school computers or VDI (and the new Windows Virtual Desktop service), or if you block EXE files running from the user profile.

The new OneDrive per-machine sync client can upgrade from old versions of sync (GROOVE.EXE) and convert existing per-user systems (it's going to be the preferred client going forward). Early in 2020, OneDrive will finally be able to migrate OneNote files as part of a known folder move -- so far, they've had to stay on the desktop and get synced to OneDrive through OneNote's own sync tool. 

There's been a bug in the Shared With Me view of OneDrive for a long time where if you had a lot of files and folders shared with you, you could only see the first few links -- clicking through shows a blank list. The 'Save for later' list coming next year will let you bookmark your own files and files shared with you for handy reference (and will hopefully fix the bug too). And if you don't have the file you need, you will finally be able to ask people to put the file into your own OneDrive by sending them an upload-only link.

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Automated transcription services will be available in 2020 for video and audio files in OneDrive, using the same AI technology available in Microsoft Stream.

Image: Microsoft

Later, in Q2 of 2020, OneDrive gets a really powerful new feature: save an audio or video file into OneDrive and you'll get an automatic transcript of it (using the same service that uses speech recognition to create transcripts for the Stream video service). We don't yet know exactly which file formats it will work with (hopefully it includes recordings in OneNote), and the transcript will initially only be available online in the OneDrive viewer -- and, like all automated transcripts, it may not be perfect, especially if one of the speakers has a strong accent. OneDrive can already tag images and make text in them searchable, and the ability to turn audio and video into text you can search or read is an excellent reason to keep those files in OneDrive rather than anywhere else.

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