FIRST LOOK: Microsoft's Live Mesh

We take an early  look at the Technology Preview of Microsoft's Live Mesh.

Microsoft is widely held to have missed the Web 2.0 boat. Its attempts to acquire Yahoo! underline the fact that its search and other online products have not won the user enthusiasm that translate to leadership positions.

The company’s new “Live Mesh,” however, has generated considerable blogosphere buzz, much of it lauding the tool as a revolutionary approach.

So what is Live Mesh?

At its core is a “Live Desktop,” a web application that allows users to upload files into folders, thanks to a small client application installed on a Windows XP or Vista PC. Users can install the client on multiple PCs, all of which can access the same Live Desktop. It is also possible to synchronise files between all the member devices of one’s personal Mesh.

One way to think of the service is as a “webified” version of the “Suitcase” utility introduced in Windows 95, which synchronises files between multiple PCs. Live Mesh does the same job, but makes a web repository the hub of the service.

Figure 1: The Live Mesh web application showing the contents of a folder and a status Window.

The “Technology Preview” we were able to download and install under the invitation-only access scheme Microsoft currently offers works only in Internet Explorer under Windows. Access from Macintoshes and mobile devices is promised for the near future.

Access to those devices is an important part of the Mesh concept, which aspires to ease management of one’s digital life by synchronising files between devices instead of always being tied to a single device to access particular types of files.

Live mesh in operation

As the software is currently a preview, we’ll forgive it the lack of features like drag and drop from the desktop to the Live Desktop. We’re less happy at the cumbersome login process, which asks users to log on to the Mesh application and then log on again once the Live Desktop appears in a browser window.

Figure 2: The interface used to log onto Live Mesh or add a device to your Mesh

Once we installed Live Mesh on our two test machines, a Dell Dimension 9200 and Dell Inspiron 5160, operations were straightforward. Installation is simple and operating the Mesh through its Web application should present no problems. The PC application is unobtrusive, and its two executables required 34MB of system memory while we were connected to our Mesh.

There’s not much more to do at the moment, however, other than upload and access files, but overall the concept of Live Mesh is elegant and well-executed.

At this early stage, however, it is difficult to understand just how it will improve productivity. The five gigabytes of online storage on offer is nice, but other services offer easier access to online storage without the need for a software installation. We are also unconvinced that Live Mesh offers the easiest way to access files between multiple devices, as while synchronisation of files between devices is desirable we feel this will be of most use for personal users, rather than professional applications. We make this assessment on the basis of Microsoft’s assertion that one use of Live Mesh is to access a home computer from work, an application that will be useful for small businesses but will surely set alarm bells going at large businesses currently investigating data loss prevention tools.

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Moreover, we think Microsoft itself already has more mature tools file sharing tools. Its Office Live plugin, for example, lets users of Office 2007 save files to a web application, which like Live Mesh offers browser-accessible storage. We’ve also found Google Docs easier to use than Office Live, while your editor’s SOHO-grade NAS boasts an FTP server which provides web access to all our files without the hassle of logins and (thanks to a DynDNS account) does not even require a static IP address.

We suspect that Mesh will mature and become more attractive once mobile devices can be added to users’ Meshes, as this will start to erase the demarcation lines between mobile devices and desktop PCs and make it easier to access media files without having to manually transfer them to a mobile device. Once that occurs, current ecosystems that tightly couple mobile media players to desktop PCs could look antiquated.

Taking multimedia mobile, however, is not a business application. We therefore expect that any corporate applications for Mesh will see its features woven into virtual private networks.

Nonetheless, we recommend signing up for the Live Mesh Technology Preview. The concept is more than interesting and the service promises to become richer as Microsoft adds features.

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