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Microsoft (Sort Of) Explains What's Going On With Live Mesh And Live Sync

I'm a day behind on this because yesterday's flight home turned into an all-day affair, but Microsoft posted an explanation about its combining of Live Mesh and Windows Live Sync to the Inside Windows Live blog yesterday and it's worth reading. I explained most of this in my review of Windows Live Sync last week, however, and will point out below what I feel is the still-unanswered-question here, and what I feel is the real answer to that question. But first...

If you've been following us closely, you know we've had two different synchronization services: Windows Live Sync and Live Mesh beta.  We’ve heard two things loud and clear.  First, people who use either Sync or Mesh rely on the services every day to connect them back to their PCs and sync their important files across multiple PCs.  And second, people want to know why we have two such similar services, and how they connect to Windows Live and SkyDrive.  So, we’ve focused on making Sync a great application for people that use multiple PCs – and making SkyDrive a great service for sharing documents and photos on the web.  Here are a few highlights of the new offering.

Access to your PC from anywhere – Many people used the remote desktop feature in Live Mesh to access files or apps from a main PC that they left online.  Similarly, people used the previous version of Sync to browse to files on their main PC remotely over the web. We’ve standardized on one solution for remote desktop access in the new Sync. We’ve kept it simple and easy to set up, but made it faster and more responsive by adding data centers and optimizing our protocols. We’ve also improved support for multiple monitors, and added zoom.

All your stuff on all the PCs you use regularly – With all of the new types of PCs available, we saw more people adding 2nd or 3rd PCs and wanting all their files in sync across PCs. With the new Sync, we’ve focused on making this very simple. Now in a few clicks you can sync Windows folders like Documents, Photos, Music, and Videos across all your PCs.  To do this, we invested heavily in peer-to-peer synchronization so you don’t have to worry about cloud storage limits.  For example, the new Sync beta intelligently chooses the right connection (internet or your local network) to sync files between different computers. We also increased key sync limits, with support for more sync folders, many more files in each folder, and the ability to synchronize files as large as 40GB now. 

Your most important desktop stuff synced to the cloud – Mesh users told us they liked having files they worked with every day constantly synced to the cloud, so that they could access them anywhere – even if the originating PC was off.  We also learned that they were using the cloud to sync personal files across machines. So, we focused on making cloud synchronization more reliable. We made sure we were providing enough cloud storage to sync a really important folder to the cloud. Although more is always better, we found that 2GB of cloud storage was enough for most of the common cases, while keeping our costs at a level that we could afford to run the service for free. Of course, you can always give other people permission to access any of your Sync folders if, for example, you want to share large picture collections or personal videos with your family.

Simple document collaboration over the web – You told us it took too much coaching to get others to use Mesh or Sync for sharing with you. You often spent time managing file conflicts because people were online at different times. That’s why we introduced the all new Office Web Apps in SkyDrive. With co-authoring and files that live in the cloud, Office Web Apps avoid most cases where edits collide, simplifying the experience for everyone.  We also brought the social “news feed” from Mesh into SkyDrive. And all of this is web-based, so it’s easy for anyone to participate. We also saw that many people used Mesh to share OneNote notebooks across PCs. So we worked with the Office team to make OneNote 2010 sync to your SkyDrive right out of the box.

There's more, read the original post, etc.

To that highlighted bit above: A number of (Live Mesh-using) people have complained to me about the scaling back of online sync from 5 GB (in Mesh) to 2 GB (in the Live Sync). As you can see above, Microsoft cites two reasons for this change.

No offense to Mr. Treadwell intended, but I feel that both reasons are completely bogus, or at least ignore what's really going on.

To the first ("we found that 2GB of cloud storage was enough for most of the common cases"), I would point out that no data is provided suggesting that this was, in fact, what most Live Mesh users were using. In fact, I've found that more is always better when it comes to storage, and have to wonder if people were storing pirated DVDs or something with their free 5 GB. Perhaps 2 GB is just easier for Microsoft because they don't need to police it.

To the second ("costs"), I would point out that Microsoft is already providing 25 GB of storage for free, and has been for years, via Windows Live SkyDrive. Cynically speaking, it's pretty clear that the 25 GB limit is and has been a bit of a game, because Microsoft has also made it very, very difficult to populate that storage within anything meaningful to actual users. Just ask anyone who's tried to upload documents or photos in bulk about how difficult it is using Microsoft's almost non-existent tools. (Only a web uploader is provided, and there is no automated method/Explorer add-in at all.)

Windows Live Sync, of course, does provide an automated way to put stuff in the cloud. So now that Microsoft has made this process easy in certain scenarios, they've also taken away storage instead of adding it, as one might expect when Live Mesh/Sync is combined with Windows Live SkyDrive. It's just another game: It can be huge but inaccessible or tiny but accessible, apparently.

I had fully expected two things to come out of this integration:

1. The ability to sync up to 25 GB of documents/data files/whatever to the cloud.

2. A seamless Explorer interface for drag-and-drop management of that storage from the Windows 7 desktop.

Neither of these things has occurred. And while the new Live Sync is only slightly less capable than its predecessor as a result, I'd further remind people that software generally gets more capable when it's updated. In fact, that's the least one should expect of any software/tech product update.

With that simple fact in mind, this state of affairs is disappointing.

Which reminds me of a third possibility which I didn't expect but would still like to see happen some day:

3. The ability to pay for additional storage.

This would, of course, require Explorer integration to be truly useful, but here we are, years later, still waiting for this basic feature. (Microsoft offered additional storage in Hotmail for years, by the way, but made it almost impossible to find and buy.) By the way, Google offers tons of additional storage for reasonable prices. And I'm now backing up something like 37 GB of photos to Google Picasaweb for this very reason. I'd love to have this backed up on Microsoft's services instead. If that was even a possibility. Which it's not.

It's too bad.

As an aside, I've gotten a number of emails from people looking for alternatives to the new Live Sync and wondering what I'm going to do. I've been a heavy user and advocate of Live Mesh and was looking forward to a more seamless and integrated future and that's clearly not happening with the new Live Mesh. For now, I intend to stick with Live Sync, however, and while I've had to change what things I sync to which places thanks to the lower 2 GB cloud storage limit, the reality is that PC-to-PC sync of documents is far more important to me than is the ability to access those files from a "web desktop" (as Live Mesh had). In fact, I don't believe I even once directly accessed the Live Mesh web desktop to get at a file, though I suspect that its presence made sync easier in some cases when certain PCs weren't on. Whatever. Live Sync seems to work similarly to Live Mesh, in my experience.

Basically, I don't have a good reason to look at any of the alternatives right now, as I need to get real work done around books and the site and can't afford to experiment with these services and my crucial data. So I don't have any opinions as to how they might work or be superior/inferior to the Microsoft stuff, sorry.

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