Microsoft revealed its first truly new thing in a long while by discussing Live Mesh, a set of tools and services that enables users to synchronize data automatically from their desktop to a cloud service - Internet-based storage - while providing a framework for developers to create software that can offer the same kind of experience no matter where data is stored and no matter what kind of device is used.
Collaboration among multiple people for sharing information and keeping up to date on what others in a group are up to - personal or professional groups alike - is a key part of Live Mesh. And, yes, Mac support is planned and promised, not just loosely discussed, according to this blog entry by Live Mesh's product manager.
Live Mesh combines elements of services and software that are already extant, although it has the potential to be something more sophisticated. Apple's .Mac subscription service ($99.95 per year) lets Tiger and Leopard users synchronize data via iDisk, with Mac OS X automatically handling updates to files that are modified, added, or deleted. That's replication and synchronization, but apart from record-level support in a relatively small number of applications (mostly from Apple) like Address Book, iCal, and Yojimbo, .Mac's syncing isn't very granular. Nor does it offer particularly good performance for large quantities of data.
Part of the Live Mesh preview shows how someone could choose to add specific folders on any device to Live Mesh, and then manage which of those folders appear on which other devices. These folders can be shared with other users, too. Here Live Mesh goes far beyond .Mac and most other online-file-sharing services by revealing on the desktop which other users are accessing the folder. That's part of a general "news feed" attached to each folder that also reveals changes and other information, and which can be extended by third parties. (I've long wanted better controls even in Leopard when I'm sharing folders via AFP as to who is connected to a given folder and for how long; that's typically a server feature.)
The system also allows remote desktop access, a la Timbuktu Pro, GoToMyPC, or, dare I say, it, Back to My Mac. I am reluctant to mention Back to My Mac only because of the many, many stories I have heard from readers of TidBITS about their difficulties in getting it to work (see "Punching a Hole for Back to My Mac," 2007-11-07).
Microsoft is initially giving 10,000 developers access to Live Mesh's underlying technology; user access is some time away. Many different product managers and high-level folks at Microsoft have said at its introduction that Live Mesh is a platform, not a monolithic service. All the components of Live Mesh should be available to developers, meaning that programmers and companies can build software that lives on top of the Live Mesh system, integrating its features without having to build them from scratch themselves. I also invite brickbats when I point out that Live Mesh can be used with standard, well-understood programming languages (including flavor-of-the-year Ruby on Rails) and delivers information via standard, non-proprietary protocols. Even Apple's Cocoa programming framework is listed among the technologies that will interoperate with Live Mesh.
This is an awfully popular concept, all of a sudden, offering a cloud of computational service and storage on which to build rich applications that can run on devices ranging from desktop computers to smartphones and other handhelds, scaling capabilities and complexity to each platform.
Amazon's cloud computing services - S3 for storage, EC2 for on-demand virtual machines, and SimpleDB for a form of database storage - is one instance of this trend. Google App Engine, launched last week, is another. Even Adobe AIR fits partly into this category, by providing a cross-platform way to access the same underlying data no matter where it's stored, while displaying an interface appropriate for the device you're using.
Live Mesh appears to be the first major effort led from idea to implementation by Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie since he accepted this role two years ago. Ozzie was promoted to one of Bill Gates's former job titles to reinvigorate Microsoft's applications and platforms; he's been involved with creating or shaping some of the most important business and collaboration software over a nearly 30-year career, notably Lotus Notes. (I said important, not best-loved.)
Ozzie's full memo to Microsoft employees about Live Mesh is instructive because it lays out his, and presumably Microsoft's, overarching view: the future of Microsoft and the Internet is about turning to the Web as a hub of social and mobile device interaction in which information must be accessible easily in many ways with little lock-in or proprietary complexity.
Is it a new day at Microsoft? The company has certainly upped the ante, and introduced a platform that has the potential to attract an entirely new audience, and shed their image as a slow-moving organization tied to proprietary specifications where the applications and operating system constrain what's possible. Live Mesh implies a flowering of interoperability, simplicity, and openness. We'll see if Microsoft can deliver on that promise, or if the cash cows of Windows and Office cause too much drag for Live Mesh to overcome.