What You Need to Know About Microsoft Live Mesh

Executive Summary:

Microsoft Live Mesh is Microsoft's entry into cloud computing, combining desktop and server software with Web-based services. Three basic services come with the current beta: a Web-based desktop you can use to remotely connect to your linked PCs, and remote PC access that requires no configuration.

With Microsoft Live Mesh, Microsoft enters the socalled cloud computing market and announces its intent to firmly embrace this emerging computing trend. The announcement is important for several reasons, most obviously because it’s the first time the company has ever shipped a product that will compete head-to-head with its traditional and lucrative desktop-based offerings. But Live Mesh, like cloud computing itself, is still widely misunderstood, and it’s unclear at this time how Microsoft’s new “service in the cloud” will affect its bread-and-butter corporate customers. Here’s what you need to know about Microsoft Live Mesh.

Understanding Cloud Computing
Although traditional software makers such as Microsoft have been plying PC-based desktop software for decades now, the emergence of pervasive broadband access to the Internet has fundamentally changed our expectations. Now, software applications and updates— even OSs—are deployed and installed from the Internet or are even run directly from the Internet, threatening to put an end to traditional media-based software delivery.

Internet-based software delivery is reminiscent in many ways of the pre-PC networking environments that mainframe and mini-computer makers were offering 20 years ago. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cloud computing also encompasses another aspect of that once-quaint computing model: That is, it too doesn’t rely on the local processing and rendering power of an individual PC. Instead, cloud computing solutions actually run in the Internet “cloud” via a Web browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) or Mozilla Firefox.

Before you assume that a scenario in which we return en-masse to the shared-computing-resource days of the 1970s is fanciful, consider that some of today’s most frequently used software solutions are delivered as cloud computing services. Google’s Gmail, Google Calendar, and Picasa Web Albums are all Web-hosted services, as are similar solutions from Microsoft (Hotmail, Windows Live Calendar, Windows Live Spaces) and Yahoo! (Yahoo! Mail and Calendar). And let’s not forget social-networking solutions such as Facebook and MySpace and even enterprise solutions such as Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services and Salesforce.com’s CRM services.

For many computer users, the notion of installing (let alone managing) more than a few basic local applications on the PC is becoming passé. Users can access their data and software solutions from any PC—and, increasingly, from other devices—anytime they want. In this sense, cloud computing is as much a revolution as it is a reminder of days gone by. Unlike the mainframe and mini-computer environments of the past, cloud computing solutions are hosted on the public Internet and are thus open to one and all. And thanks to a growing interest in open-source and advertiser-supported solutions, much of what makes cloud computing so attractive to people is that it’s free.

Microsoft’s Response: Software Plus Services
As has been the case with so many computing initiatives over the years, Microsoft has adopted cloud computing slowly and belatedly, leaving the market wide open for faster competitors such as Google and smaller startups. For pragmatic reasons—its traditional Windows, Windows Server, and Office product lines continue to generate billions of dollars of revenue every quarter—Microsoft has sought over the years to extend its desktop and server products with online services capabilities instead of fully embracing cloud computing.

In Windows, this online-services strategy originally meant duplicating the success Microsoft had merging IE into Windows, an action that destroyed then-market-leader Netscape: Witness the multiple instances of so-called middleware—bundled products like Windows Messenger, IE, and Outlook Express—that Microsoft introduced in Windows XP. However, with antitrust regulators on three continents threatening and, in at least two high-profile cases, actually delivering legal remedies against the company, Microsoft had to change its strategy.

Microsoft’s new strategy has settled into an arguably logical plan that Microsoft calls Software Plus Services. S+S makes sense: Microsoft says it will combine the best of its traditional desktop and server software with a new generation of Web-based services, providing customers with a best-of-both-worlds experience that combines the maturity and richness of Windows and Office with the pervasive online capabilities of true cloud computing solutions.

So while Google is busy building a replica of Microsoft Word circa 1985 in its Google Docs solution, Microsoft has extended its wellreceived and widely deployed Office suite with online services such as Office Live Workspace (online collaboration), Office Live Small Business (online presence, marketing, and sales), and Windows Live SkyDrive (Web-based document storage). And while consumers are free to continue using services such as Hotmail and Windows Live Calendar, Microsoft is also offering Exchange Hosted Services for businesses that need the power of Exchange but lack the facilities to host it themselves. Microsoft SQL Server will join this list as well with the new SQL Server Data Services.

Microsoft is also investigating methods of monetizing what will eventually become cloud-based services. This is typically done through subscription means, such as the Software Assurance (SA) volume licensing program with which many enterprises are familiar. But Microsoft has also been trying to get consumers accustomed to subscriptionbased software services, most frequently through a series of Office-related schemes. The most recent, currently code-named Albany, will combine Office 2007 Home and Student Edition with the company’s Windows Live OneCare security service and several Windows Live and Office Live services and will ship by the end of 2008.

While it’s in keeping with the company’s core strengths, Microsoft’s S+S initiative is obviously a stop-gap measure bridging the traditional software of the past and the Webbased services of the future. As time goes by, Microsoft and competing technology companies will deliver an ever-increasing number of products via the cloud and fewer products locally with even fewer delivered via traditional retail packaging.

Why Live Mesh is Different
Sensing the industry change, Microsoft has been working secretly on a cloud computing platform called Live Mesh. Available now in beta, Live Mesh is an operating environment that can run on the Web, offering Web-based management and synchronization of Windows-based PCs, Macs, and various smart phones and other mobile devices. What makes Live Mesh different from Microsoft’s previous S+S efforts is that it’s platform agnostic—the company is supporting a host of non-Microsoft devices—and that it will support an application execution environment that will be common among all supported devices. Furthermore, Live Mesh– based applications can take advantage of outside Web services and vice versa, thanks to its open programming model.

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In its beta form, however, Live Mesh offers only a small subset of the projected functionality. Three basic services are available:

Web-based desktop. Exposed as a device in your “mesh” of connected devices, the Live Desktop is a Web-based version of the Windows Vista desktop that you access from any Web browser, complete with RSS-style “news” updates (really an ongoing stream of information about any updates to your mesh), ways to remotely connect to your linked PCs, and access to the contents of your shared folders.

Folder sharing. As with Microsoft’s FolderShare service, Live Mesh offers folder sharing capabilities between any and all linked PCs (and, later, other devices) and the Live Desktop. As documents and other files in these shared folders are changed (or added or deleted), any other PCs and devices that are linked to the shares are updated as well, automatically and almost instantly. These synchronized folders reside online, in the Web-based Live Desktop, and on linked PCs in your mesh.

Remote PC access. Utilizing a browserbased Remote Desktop-like experience, Live Mesh lets you remotely access the desktop of any linked PC, assuming it’s on and connected to the Internet. It does this without any configuration of any kind on either end of the connection, and it even works with non-business versions of Windows, including XP Home and Vista Home Premium, which don’t natively include Remote Desktop functionality.

As noted previously, Microsoft intends to be aggressive about supporting non-Microsoft devices. The theory here is that most individuals today don’t actually use just a single device. Instead, people increasingly use multiple PCs (and Macs) both at home and at work. They own and access desktop PCs and laptop computers. They have smart phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, and other mobile devices. And they have a host of online personas via email and IM services, social networking memberships, e-commerce sites, and other online communities. As users, we manage these disparate components separately and with great difficulty. Microsoft is seeking to take this heterogeneous computing environment and make it centrally manageable.

Live Mesh and Businesses
Coming as it does out of the Windows Live group at Microsoft, the initial beta version of Live Mesh is indeed somewhat consumer focused. But don’t let that dampen your expectations for its future. In October 2008, at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2008, Microsoft will release the first version of its Live Mesh Software Development Kit to developers, and the company expects Live Mesh to form the basis for a new generation of software services that will provide value across all of its customer segments. Most tellingly, perhaps, Live Mesh is seen as a major platform initiative, akin to Windows, Windows Server, and Office, which will drive users towards cloud computing in the coming years.

Even now, Live Mesh’s remote desktop and folder sharing functionality is sure to prove interesting to small and mediumsized businesses. And though true enterprise management of these and other coming services is currently only on the horizon, it’s not hard to imagine that Microsoft will begin incorporating Mesh-based services in all of its product lines.

Live Mesh is, perhaps, the most forwardlooking project to emerge out of Redmond since the first version of Windows NT back in 1993. As with NT, Live Mesh is a repudiation of past software initiatives at Microsoft and a chance to start over with a modern platform that’s unburdened by the compatibility issues facing its mainstream computing platforms of the day. Live Mesh works with and integrates into core Microsoft solutions such as Windows, of course. But it also can stand alone as a cloud computing platform that offers value far beyond the confines of the software giant’s core markets. In the enterprise, Live Mesh is currently more vision than reality, but developers especially should become familiar with the platform as soon as possible. Stay tuned: As Microsoft evolves this platform into something more applicable to IT needs, I’ll keep you informed.

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