Microsoft's 'Live Mesh' aims to become the universal window to the Web

Microsoft has taken the wraps off a Technology Preview of its new Live Mesh platform, which promises to connect disparate devices so they can seamlessly share information. But beyond the surface, Live Mesh portends that Microsoft doesn't just want to compete on the Web; it wants to be the Web.

The brainchild of Redmond's new Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie and in development for two years, Live Mesh is a bold endeavor that, if successful, could change the way PCs and other devices interact with Internet services and each other. Microsoft wants data and applications to be accessible from anywhere -- online and off -- using any device.

In order to accomplish this goal, Microsoft has created what is at its core a synchronization platform based on its FeedSync technology. Live Mesh takes the concept of RSS feeds used to share news and extends it to information and data used by Web services and desktop applications.

Why synchronization? Because it's the key to modern-day computing in which PCs no longer stand alone, but rather interact in an ecosystem of consumer electronics and the Internet. Apple discovered this with the launch of the iPod and iTunes, and continued the trend in its new Mac operating systems and iLife software suite. If you control the synchronization of information, you control the ecosystem.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has struggled to achieve simple synchronization between its products and services, and the result is frequently confusing and frustrating for the end user. When everything ran just on Windows this wasn't a problem because it controlled the underlying architecture. But now, devices rely instead on the Web to communicate and share data.

The Web has long posed a potential threat to Microsoft, but until recently it remained an island, cut off from entertainment and productivity. Now, it's becoming what company officials call the "central hub of social experience," and Windows is slowly being made obsolete by the likes of Google and Yahoo serving rich applications in a Web browser.

The solution to this problem is conceptually fairly simple: Make a "Windows for the Web" and encourage developers to write their applications for this new platform. The advantage to developers is the integration with the operating system that enables the application to function even when offline. Consumers will also see a benefit by having a single location to access their different devices and launch Web applications in a familiar desktop-like environment.

Enter Live Desktop, the centerpiece of Live Mesh and the first piece of the platform that Microsoft is unveiling Wednesday. "My Computer" is being replaced by "My Mesh," which displays the user's various devices (although it's currently limited to Windows XP and Windows Vista PCs.) Live Desktop becomes one of these devices -- essentially the user's hard drive located in the so-called "cloud." Microsoft wants it to become everyone's personal Web destination, and therefore it's compatible with IE, Safari and Firefox.

During the Technology Preview, testers will be granted 5GB of storage and two applications serve as an example of what the Live Mesh platform is capable of: file sharing and Remote Desktop. Files and folders can be made part of the mesh, which makes them available through the Live Desktop and from other devices on the mesh. This can include music, photos or work documents -- whatever the user wants to access from different locations or directly on the Web. Changes made to any file are then synchronized back to the mesh.

Sharing also spans to other people. "Take a picture folder, add e-mail addresses to the people you want to share with. Whoever you send the e-mail to can click the URL and consume the folder through their desktop," explained Abhay Parasnis, Product Unit Manager of Live Mesh. Users become "members" of your Live Mesh to facilitate social interaction.

In order to connect devices to the mesh, there is a small 2MB software component called the Mesh Operating Environment. It installs the Live Mesh Notifier application, which serves as a "news feed" for things happening in the mesh, and the Mesh Companion bar that integrates into Windows Explorer windows. For now, this simply makes it easier to share and access files over the mesh, although a Mac client is planned, along with a runtime for mobile phones.

Confused? View our Live Mesh highlights in bullet point form

The Remote Desktop capabilities of Live Mesh are similar to the existing software offering, but users can now control Windows machines directly in the browser with a new ActiveX plug-in for Internet Explorer. Microsoft plans to add support for other device types "that make sense," according to Parasnis.

But if Microsoft is to have any chance to succeed in establishing Live Mesh as a de-facto Web platform, it needs applications -- and that means courting developers. REST APIs will be offered, along with pre-made API kits for JavaScript and Silverlight developers. Applications can also communicate with Live Mesh through FeedSync without the need to bother with the APIs.

Because applications built for Live Mesh can function both online and off, any changes made when offline will automatically sync back to the service when connected again. P2P technology helps keep bandwidth usage at a minimum.

"We set a key goal so that the model should be symmetrical. Developers can write one app and change the URL to target it locally if local runtime software is installed," Paransis told BetaNews. "The second thing the symmetrical model gives us is Web projection for a rich client application. Developers can take the best of works on the Web and blend it with what they want to do on the client."

Google has also seen the advantage of this software-plus-services model and has released Google Gears to help bridge the gap with its applications.

"If you are a Web developer building a photo sharing service like Flickr, one thing you will be able to do is take that Web application, written in AJAX, and offer a fully offline experience," said Paransis. "Developers can take their existing AJAX app or Python app or whatever, and connect it with the software+service sync machine of Live Mesh and run it offline. The application will get surfaced on the desktop and devices."

For security purposes, Live Mesh applications will run in protected "sandboxes," he added.

But despite wanting some early feedback and Live Mesh General Manager Amit Mital giving a keynote about the platform at the Web 2.0 conference Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft isn't quite ready for developers just yet. Over the next "weeks and months," Microsoft plans to start engaging the developer community and wants applications written atop the Live Mesh platform starting later this year.

Because the Live Mesh team is part of the broader Live organization within Microsoft, Paransis says it is "safe to expect" that Microsoft will also integrate existing Windows Live services like Hotmail, Photos and Spaces into Live Mesh.

Paransis emphasized that Live Mesh is still in its early stages and only 10,000 users will be invited to use the Technology Preview. Microsoft is soliciting feedback now so it can learn what developers and the general public likes and doesn't like. A broader beta test is currently slated for this fall, although it could happen closer to the end of the year. The company expects to be making major adjustments over the next 9 to 12 months, and many features -- like device support other than Windows computers -- are yet to come.

A lot of questions remain about Live Mesh, but perhaps the biggest is whether developers will be wary of Microsoft trying to control the Web with its own proprietary platform, or appreciate the added functionality they gain like offline support and local storage. Consumers will also need to see the benefit of having a virtual Windows desktop serving as their universal window to the Web rather than simply clicking a bookmark in their browser.

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