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Making a Mesh of IT?

A key piece of the S+S puzzle, or a random distraction?

Executive Summary:

Microsoft Live Mesh is the latest piece in Microsoft’s Software Plus Services (S+S) strategy. Find out how Live Mesh fits Microsoft’s big picture.

Microsoft is like a complex jigsaw puzzle for grownups— but the kids tossed in a few random pieces from their puzzles. Think about Microsoft’s overall product strategy: Some offerings lock together seamlessly so that you can see how the finished picture should look. The management strategy anchored by the System Center products is a good example. Other pieces appear to fit but really don’t. MSN comes to my mind. And still others look wrong, but end up being exactly what you need to complete the tricky section that looks like it will be a cloud.

As a possible candidate for that last category, I’ve been contemplating some edge pieces that are forming a view of Microsoft’s Software Plus Services (S+S) strategy. I just picked up a piece, Microsoft Live Mesh, that appears to be a corner—but then again, maybe it’s only part of the kids’ Mickey Mouse puzzle.

Live Mesh is currently in its earliest stages of pre-beta development and available only through a private technical preview. So it’s premature to speculate about the product’s eventual significance. Nevertheless, after playing with Live Mesh, I found that it is already surprisingly useful, even with its still-limited feature set. Most intriguing, though, is the sense that Live Mesh hints at how S+S could actually provide practical solutions and become enmeshed with IT. (For details on what Live Mesh is, see Paul Thurrott’s “Microsoft Live Mesh,” page 10.) Examining the Microsoft puzzle, I’m trying to see how Live Mesh fits—or doesn’t fit—the company’s big picture.

Beyond OSs and Applications
Microsoft insists that it is a “platform” company. This insistence signals that the company offers more than discrete software products; it also combines these products to produce end-to-end solutions. Examples include business intelligence (BI) and unified communications (UC). But the platform message also conveys a more far-reaching strategic direction. Microsoft is setting the stage to go beyond selling OSs and applications and to evolve its business model toward enabling Webbased revenue opportunities: Take Microsoft’s push to be an advertising “platform” à la Google, for example.

Live Mesh is a further, and potentially more significant, example of Microsoft’s platform strategy. According to Jeff Hansen, general manager, Live Services Marketing, “Live Mesh is a S+S platform that enlivens devices by making them aware of each other over the Internet. Not surprisingly since Microsoft at its core is a platform company and the Live Mesh group resides in the platform organization, the solution they came up with is a platform. The best analogy to think about is Windows.”

Windows is indeed a good analogy. And although it would be blasphemy for anyone at Microsoft to admit the idea, Live Mesh (or something like it) could end up following the same route from consumer to enterprise as Windows, and even (gasp!) replacing Windows some day. Jeff noted the future importance of Live Mesh: “The Live Mesh group is part of our Live Platform Services group, which built the platform technologies for all Live offerings and beyond. So for some of those technologies, Live Mesh represents the next generation. All of that is part of our emergent services platform strategy.”

At this early stage, Live Mesh is positioned as a consumer play, and Microsoft is engaging developers to create Live Mesh applications that will entice customers when the product is released. But business IT is definitely on the radar. Jeff said, “Over time there’ll be relevance to IT and business scenarios. In fact, the team built the platform from day one thinking about unique needs (such as provisioning) for the enterprise IT department. They even thought through allowing an organization to have the mesh cloud, or a portion of the mesh cloud, reside on their own servers on premise. So \[Microsoft\] built the platform to accommodate those scenarios. We don’t have those scenarios out today.”

Should You Care?
In 2000, I attended a Bill Gates briefing on a new Microsoft vision. This radical paradigm foresaw technology that would follow you seamlessly from your job to your car to your doctor’s office to your bank—everywhere. This vision was called .NET. Excitement about .NET became so pervasive that everything at Microsoft got .NET appended to it. People even joked that Microsoft’s restrooms were labeled “Women.NET” and “Men.NET.” But .NET got scaled back as the company realized its ambitions outreached its abilities.

Microsoft history is replete with exciting ideas that never materialized. For now, though, it looks like the .NET vision has risen again, and this time technology has advanced enough to make it feasible. Live Mesh might just be the piece that will eventually complete the .NET picture.

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