Meshing the desktop into the cloud

The release of Live Mesh lays the foundation for Microsoft to move the center of gravity for its software products away from individual desktop and server machines into the cloud, with fundamental implications for how Microsoft licences software.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

I'm often harsh on Microsoft, but I'm going to lighten up now that it's introduced Live Mesh (great coverage at Liveside, a useful ten points from Mary Jo, more at Techmeme).

Live Mesh imageOne of the misconceptions people often have about the Web is that exists 'out there', as some separate universe that we plug into and out of from our desktop devices and office networks 'down here'. In fact, our local networks and devices are just as much (or should be) a part of the cloud as any other connected resource. Live Mesh brings that to life, as product director Mike Zintel explains on the brand new Live Mesh blog:

"[It] blend[s] the web, Windows and other computing endpoints in a way that preserves the 'it just works' feel of the web with seamless integration into my common workflows. The coolest thing about Live Mesh is how it smashes the abrupt mental switch that I have to make today as I move between being 'on the web' and 'in an application'."

At first glance, that may seem a perfectly reasonable and innocuous statement — and indeed it is, if you take a Web-centric view of the world — but coming out of Microsoft, it's dynamite. Instead of seeing the Web as an extension of the desktop, it includes the desktop as part of the continuum of the Web. Where then does the application sit? Not on the desktop, or on any identifiable server machine, but simply in the mesh. In other words, it becomes a service, capable of running anywhere in the cloud, including on the desktop.

Zintel's blog post is a really great starting point for understanding what Microsoft is doing with Mesh. One of the most striking aspects is the way that Live Mesh begins with individuals, and defines everything else in relation to and by the individual:

"We ... focused on adding value to individuals: people who may work in enterprises and belong to multiple organizations, but who also make choices as consumers, and use multiple technologies (and who are probably frustrated with the productivity barriers that exist as a side effect of the seams the industry imposes on them) ..."

"The core philosophy is to make it easy to manage information in a world where people have multiple computing experiences (i.e. PCs and applications, web sites, phones, video games, music and video devices) that they use in the context of different communities (i.e. myself, family, work, organizations) ..."

"At the core of Mesh is [the] concept of a customer's mesh, or collection of devices, applications and data that an individual owns or regularly uses. The Mesh Account Service persists the relationship among these resources and authorizes access to them. The mesh is the foundation for a model where customers will ultimately license applications to their mesh, as opposed to an instantiation of Windows, Mac or a mobile account or a web site. Such applications will be seamlessly installed and run from their mesh and application settings persisted across their mesh."

Notice how the application no longer resides on a specific machine — quite a departure from Microsoft's current licensing regime — but instead is defined in relation to the individual's mesh. No wonder this isn't even in beta yet. Imagine how much work has to be done before this can be delivered commercially.

Some other interesting takeaways from Zintel's description of Mesh:

  • Files, nuggets of information and even applications become mesh objects that can be accessed in various ways
  • Member lists of entities — typically groups or communities of people but also logical entities such as a spellchecker — are associated with these objects
  • Objects can be stored wherever chosen, according to storage requirements, thus allowing an organization for example to mandate that sensitive data must be stored on its own servers.
  • A pub/sub mechanism supports synchronization, replication and the concept of 'awareness', ie alerts and feeds that keep participants updated on current status.

Overall, Live Mesh seems to be a simple yet elegant implementation and by all accounts some of Microsoft's finest minds have been engaged in the project, presided over by Ray Ozzie himself. In an interview with Jon Udell, Ozzie talks about building something that will last for the next 30 years. As CNET's Charles Cooper reminds us, this is Ray Ozzie's third attempt at getting this right: "haven't we seen some of this before? A service which offers both synchronization and replication? Remember Lotus Notes and Groove? ... Ray Ozzie was the creative force behind Notes, Groove, and now, Live Mesh." At first glance, Live Mesh could well have the ingredients to make it third time lucky.

That doesn't entirely let Microsoft off the hook. A year ago, I wrote about Microsoft's Jekyll-and-Live identity crisis, highlighting how the company seems to lurch from launching fresh, Web-savvy solutions one day but then falling back into its crusty old server-centric habits the next. More recently, it's become clear that Ray Ozzie understands what has to be done to ensure Microsoft stays relevant in a web-centric world, but first he has to drag the rest of Microsoft along with him, and it won't happen without a lot of kicking and screaming from the old guard.

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