Is Live Mesh the next WinFS?

by Matt 25. June 2008 16:46

And I mean that in a good way.

WinFS was a fantastic concept. Complicated and grandiose, but quite clearly revolutionary.

The basic promise of WinFS was this: It was a general purpose data store all your data.

It promised a number of interesting end-user features. Firstly, data could be stored as structured entities directly in the database. Or you could keep the data in files just like you’ve always done and add the files into WinFS. Structured data would be extracted out and promoted into the database. Changes would be pushed back down into the file. And you could access the file directly, too, using plain old Win32 files (via some network redirector magic that SqlServer 2008 appears to have picked up – and this is where the confusion with WinFS being a filesystem comes from – the lines are certainly blurred here). It was all fully searchable and supported a synchronisation story.

Jon Udell (also a long time fan of WinFS) recently published a great interview with Microsoft’s Quentin Clark entitled “Where is WinFS now?” which is well worth a listen/read. Apparently, large portions of the technology have either shipped or are coming soon.

But bizarrely, most of it has ended up server-side.

So, let’s look at the client-side piece.

Search is done, although it’s arguably missing the first class relationships (I can search for all photos on a certain date, but not for all photos for a given persons birthday).

Common schema for the structured data is still MIA.

And synchronisation, ah yes. This was a big piece of WinFS, and is now also shipping separately:

“As they realized they were onto something, they started to fork out a componentized version of it that's now finding its way into a bunch of Microsoft products. The official branding is Microsoft Sync Framework. I think they're on target for shipping it in six different products, and for embedding it all over the place.”

The Sync Framework? The one that contains FeedSync? The protocol that powers Live Mesh? Yep.

Live Mesh provides synchronisation, just like WinFS. It enables storing structured data as custom items in a feed. Or you can store metadata about a file, with the files treated as enclosures and sitting in the local filesystem. Couple that with Vista’s (or is it Windows Search’s) Property System, and you’ve got your read/write file metadata.

And it has an API that allows any application to read or write to it.

In other words, Live Mesh is the global, shared data store that WinFS was aiming for.

It’s still missing the common schema, and as of today, Windows Search knows nothing about it (although that would be a great project to write) but frankly, that’s the icing on the cake. Every application needs to store data, and every application invents their own way (xml files, databases, zip archives). Every application is a data silo. A global data store like WinFS could crack that wide open.

And that’s a good thing.


Live Mesh and Me

by Matt 20. June 2008 18:16

Firstly, I’d just like to point out that I’m on the train. And on the Internet. The modern world continues to amaze and bedazzle me.

But what I really wanted to talk about was Live Mesh. I’ve finally got my invite (thought not through surprisingly), installed it, played with it, and yes, it works lovely. It’s all file-syncing goodness. It’s all, well, it’s all a little bit underwhelming actually. It’s just not terribly exciting.

And then I watched the Channel 9 video with Ori Amiga on programming Live Mesh, and it blew my head off. The potential here is really powerful stuff. It’s a platform, and you’ve got several ways of working with it:

  1. Just use the file system, and let Live Mesh worry about the synchronisation. You can make the minimum of changes to your application (perhaps add a file watcher) and still enable collaborative working.
  2. Query Live Mesh via a REST interface – http to the Live Mesh service. And now you can store your data in a more structured manner, directly within Mesh. Partition your data up into Atom feed entries, and Bob’s your uncle.
  3. Query Live Mesh via a REST interface on your desktop. This is a killer. You can make exactly the same http calls as you would to the Live Mesh service, but they are all non-network calls of the Mesh Operating Environment (cutely known as MOE) that runs locally on your machine, and which has all of the data of the online service locally, because, hey, that’s what Live Mesh does. And any changes you make to your local data store are automatically replicated up to the cloud.

The really big thing that hit me during this was the idea that Live Mesh can now be a generic application data store, shared by all local applications. We’ve seen this idea before. Well, nearly seen it. I’m going to come back to this.

And then, of course, Apple announce Mobile Me, which is, yep, a synchronisation platform. It’s the typical story; Microsoft announce a grand new vision to build a fantastic generic platform, and along comes Apple (or someone) and simply releases the working end application – something that just does the job.

And Mobile Me is very similar in terms of features. It does the whole sync thing – mail, contacts, calendar, photos, files, bookmarks, system (Mac) preferences, cross platform and phone (iPhone) – everything that Microsoft have promised, if not delivered.

So does that mean Live Mesh isn’t important?

Well, we’ll see. But I think Live Mesh has an edge – and that’s the API. It’s a platform, not an application. And by enabling developers to create applications with built-in cloud storage, personal synchronisation, collaborative working, structured data shared between local apps (I love this one), or devices that are actually online services such as Flickr or Facebook, well, they might just be on to something.

(And I’m no longer on the train. Mobile broadband modem died. It would appear that the modern world is not quite as amazing and bedazzling as I’d thought.)


How to insert a USB cable

by Matt 18. June 2008 17:35

Are you tired of never knowing which way up you insert a USB cable? Do you always need several attempt before you can plug it in? Want to know how to get it right first time?

Based on the empirical evidence of a total of 3 cables, I can say, with some conviction, that a USB cable is always plugged in with the USB logo facing up.

A USB cable

Indeed, Wikipedia, from whence I shamelessly stole this picture, backs up my, um, research, with this tidbit on the topic of usability:

It is not obvious at a glance to the inexperienced user (or to a user without sight of the installation) which way around the connector goes, so it is often necessary to try both ways. More often than not, however, the side of the connector with the "trident" logo is the top.

Shame USB drives don’t have the logo on them. I guess I’ll still have to get it wrong, swear and turn it over before using those.


Build your own context menu key

by Matt 17. June 2008 16:26

Turns out, my expensive, stupidly big laptop doesn’t have a context menu key. You know, one of these:





Now, I’m kind of used to the fact that laptop keyboards layouts are implemented with random number generators, and have pretty much resigned myself to the muscle memory stutter when trying to hit end, home or page up and page down on any particular machine, but to take away my context menu key is just rude.

Especially when they’ve bothered to include a number pad. I’ve already got one set of numbers, thanks.

It’s taken me over a week to find it on my work Dell laptop – head top right then turn left four or five buttons. But it’s completely MIA on my new machine. (But if you use Fn + End, it opens calculator. I have no idea why.)

Fortunately, Windows is smart enough to include a registry value to change the values sent to the system when you press specific keys. Don’t like your keyboard layout? Change it.

Of course, it’s in scary binary format, so download a program to help you. I used SharpKeys, but there are plenty of them out there – they don’t need to install, just to change a single registry value.

So now it was just a choice of which key to use. The closest in physical position was AltGr, which according to Wikipedia, is only useful for getting the Euro sign € and the pipe symbol ¦ on the UK keyboard, and guess what, Windows lets you use Ctrl + Left Alt instead of AltGr.

Which meant a quick map of Right Alt to the “Application” key and a logout later, and I’ve got a working context menu key. Another fine hack.

It might be worth having a bit of a mooch through the list of keys in this tool, though. You can map all sorts of keys to special functions like Media Up and Down, and yes, Calculator.

Of course, I could have just pressed Shift + F10.


The times they are a-changing

by Matt 11. June 2008 17:24

It’s been a little while since I last posted. Well, not counting the two posts earlier today. And, admittedly, since Smallest Child was born, I’ve struggled to hit double-figures in a single month, and oh-my-god, I’m writing a meta-blogging post.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t blog about blogging, but you know what, I’ve been doing this for (very surprisingly) over 2 years now. So I think I’m entitled to the occasional self-indulgence. Feel free to wander off now – this post is going to be very light on techie stuff.

(My first post was 25 May 2006, not that you’d know if from the blog software I’m using – for some reason, the Posts Archive list starts in June 2006. This blog runs on Single User Blog, an Open Source project started by Mitch Denny that I had a lot of fun hacking on and learning 2 with. Of course, I never did have enough spare time to implement/fix everything I wanted to (such as conditional gets on the rss feed – ouch) and you know that when the creator of the platform abandons it, it’s time to move on. I’d love to write a new platform, WCF and LINQ based, but I don’t have the time, I wouldn’t finish it, and I think Minima has already done it, so I’ll probably be off to sometime soon. I just want to migrate without breaking anything.)

Anyway, there’s more interesting things to write about. Namely, a change of jobs. I’ve had exactly 3 jobs in the last 13 years. One year at a database solutions provider that went bankrupt. 5 years as a C/C++ cowboy developer at a company that creates a finite element analysis suite (and whose website is beautifully, wonderfully, still running on the same dev box, with the same university domain name). And 7 years at a rather large online bank.

And I’ve left. I’d reached the point where there wasn’t much else I felt I could get out of being there – I’d ticked all the boxes I’d wanted to tick. I was a Principal Developer, but had moved away from writing code. I’ve had a brilliant time there – it really was a great place to work (despite what we used to say. We weren’t happy unless we were complaining). I’ve learnt an awful lot, and I’ve shipped a lot of software (there are a number of really important pieces of architecture that I’ve had my hands on that I’ve really rather proud of).

Plus, my wife and I work for the same company, many miles from home. Putting 2 kids in the car for 2 hours a day is a bit rough. Plus First Born is starting pre-school soon, and the child care just doesn’t work out when we’re both working.

So here I am. In London, living away from home contracting. My wife’s also just handed her notice in, and it’s all change Chez Moi.

I’m currently working on a 6 month contract down in London for a rather well known media company, building the back end processing system for pushing TV programmes out onto the Internet. Cool. My contract is for me to be an Application Architect, but I’m kind of on secondment to this project right now, so I guess I’m a dev of some sort. But it’s really good. I’m 3 days in, and have already been pairing, writing test-driven code, and checking stuff in; I’ve been productive, which I was expecting so soon.

“Team Agile” as my ex-boss puts it. He’s not bitter.

But enough navel-gazing.

I’ve got me a new laptop, and quite clearly, my eyes are bigger than my belly. It’s a Dell Inspiron 1720. Yep. 17 inches of goodness. Er, screen. And that’s a whopping 1920 x 1200 resolution. I’m all awash with screen real estate right now; it’s lovely. And the 4 gig helps, too. Check it out:


This isn’t a laptop, it’s a desktop with a built in screen! It’s even got a numpad!

And it’s just as big and heavy.

Yeah, I’ve sacrificed some convenience for raw power. Oh well. I’ll get over it.


Windows Live Writer CTP

by Matt 11. June 2008 15:46

There’s a new test version of Windows Live Writer out, and amongst the changes is one to warm the cockles of my heart – they correctly register the Windows Search filter for .wpost files. Which means that post is now irrelevant.

Thanks guys.



by Matt 11. June 2008 14:50

nothing to see, move along.


(And this post is staying up, too. Think repaving a new laptop, copying over all your old Windows Live Writer posts only to find that if you edit one and try to publish and it just creates a new file and rather disappointingly even creates a new post, rather than just updating the old post. Time for another not-so-quick hack. Now, how do you do Structured Storage again?)



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