Microsoft, as part of its new Windows Live set of hosted services announced on June 27, is now beta testing the concept of free data storage "in the cloud" for consumers.
If all goes well with the 5,000 beta testers now trying it out (sorry, no more testers are being added at this time), Windows users at large could be receiving the invite to sign up free of charge by this fall.
Windows Live Folders, a hosted system for storage of personal files and accessing and sharing files publicly with access controls for all contacts, will give users 500MB of online storage at no charge. The maximum file size supported will be 50MB.
"Windows Live, first of all, is a set of tools that allow users to save files, share files and communicate is a very safe way," Adam Sohn, a Microsoft marketing director for online products, told eWEEK.
"These were developed in response to our customers, who repeatedly told us, I love the Internet, but in some respects I use it in spite of the Internet industry, who has made it too fragmented, too unsafe, too hard to figure out. Ive got data and applications spread all over the place. Help me unify this stuff!"
Windows Live is a set of services that begins to deliver on that need, Sohn said.
Live Folders is a "first step into giving folks some storage capabilities that are hosted," so they dont have to tax their own desktop or laptop disks for additional storage, Sohn said.
There are three "buckets of folders, in Live Folders, Sohn said-personal, shared, and public folders.
"Every person who gets into the service will have those three sets of storage," Sohn said. "You can add a bunch more folders underneath those buckets, if you want. The personal one is just for you; the shared folder-you manage the permissions. You can pick people off your contact list-your Hotmail address book or your Windows Live Messenger contacts, for example. You can point and click off your own social network."
The public folder is for access by the entire Internet, Sohn said. People can take files, add files or change them-do anything they want-to files in a users public folder.
Live Folders aims to set the table for a planned common Microsoft storage infrastructure that will be used alongside other services-such as Windows Live Photo Gallery, which also was launched earlier this week-in the future.
"This is both a Web application that I can go to in order to access and share files, as well as a common storage infrastructure that will underpin an increasing number of our services going forward. This is the first step of that common storage infrastructure," said Brian Hall, general manager of Microsofts Windows Live business group.
Over time, Sohn said, Microsoft would like users to think about how to bring all these services together and use them on a regular basis.
"What were looking to do is build out the [Internet] infrastructure and experiences so that people can do what it is they want to do with their data," Sohn said.
"This weeks deliverable of a Web-based hosted file storage system is kind of cool, but in the end, we want those distinctions to go away. We want a user to say, Okay, I need access to the pictures I took of my kids in the beach in Hawaii, and to be able to just go searching. If that stuff is up in a Web share, great; if its sitting on a PC at your house, we want to enable you to tunnel through [to get it].
"We want the interaction to be able find a piece of media or information easy across all of the devices in your life, including phones and handheld devices."
Microsoft wants to "put the user at the center of all that matters in their life," so they can get any digital document they want, when they want it, Sohn said.
"Live Folders is a small down payment on building out this infrastructure," Sohn said.
Windows Live Folders, which will contain advertising, will be free of charge. The beta for this service is now under way in the United States; tester feedback will be used to develop future versions of the service.
eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli contributed to this report.