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Microsoft plans to roll out a series of updates to its free Windows Live SkyDrive service later today, trying to give the cloud service a stronger identity as a standalone product for storing files — not just a behind-the-scenes tool for Office Web Apps, Hotmail, Windows Phone and other Microsoft products.

SkyDrive pinned to the Windows taskbar

The company says the changes have been in the works for a while. However, they’re arriving just as the competition heats up in cloud storage, thanks to Apple, Amazon.com and Google, which are focusing heavily on music.

“It’s really important for us to establish SkyDrive as a distinct concept,” said Anand Babu, a Microsoft senior product manager, in an interview.

Highlights from the SkyDrive changes  …

  • Microsoft is adding SkyDrive to the standard Windows Live navigation bar, and enabling the ability to pin SkyDrive to the Windows taskbar using Internet Explorer 9, giving users faster access to files stored in the SkyDrive service.
  • The company is doubling the limit for individual file sizes to 100 MB, while keeping the overall maximum for a single account to 25GB of stored files.
  • Under the hood, the company is taking advantage of PC graphics hardware for faster navigation of folders and photo albums. It’s also grouping files in a way that’s more similar to native file management systems on Windows and Mac OS X, aiming to making the experience more intuitive.
  • Ads were removed to create room for a new information pane in the right-hand side of the SkyDrive interface, with quick links to commands such as opening a file in Word or Excel.
  • A series of changes have been made in the presentation of photos, including an infinite scroll mechanism, similar to Microsoft’s Bing Photos presentation, and a “mosaic” layout with thumbnails of varying size that reflect the aspect ration of individual pictures.
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