Live Mesh

by Matt 17. May 2008 18:15

Live Mesh has been out for a little while now, and while I'm still waiting for my invite, I have been digging through the available blogs, documentation and videos.

Now. This is going to be a long post, because Mesh is kinda deep. You've been warned. Go and get a coffee.

Put simply, Live Mesh is a synchronisation platform. We've seen plenty of those before, even from Microsoft themselves (FolderShare, SyncToy), and the current user experience of sync-ing files and folders doesn't really distinguish itself from the other offerings. (DropBox is a beta application that is almost indistinguishable - with a good flash video intro). It might not be terribly remarkable, but it works, and it's definitely a useful tool as it stands. The platform is the best bit.

Let's try and describe what you get in as few words as possible.

A Mesh is made up of multiple devices. A device is really any kind of computing device. The Windows PC is currently the only one supported, but Mac and (Windows) mobile support is coming soon. You can create special "Live Folders" on your devices, and the contents of these are replicated to any or all of your devices. Any changes you make to any files in any folders on any device are replicated to all devices. So far so good.

There is a special device called Live Desktop. This is more than just another device, and is provided by Microsoft. Firstly, it's a device living in the cloud, and provides you with 5 gig of cloud based storage. Secondly, it's accessible via the browser (using a simulated desktop UI, complete with Explorer windows). Thirdly, it's really the coordinating service and notifies all the other devices when changes are made, so that they start updating their copies (future versions will apparently support a more peer-to-peer approach for this kind of thing), and it is instrumental in setting up a browser based (as in, ActiveX) remote desktop into your devices.

So we've got a platform that allows me to have my files locally, on any device I own. It also gives me access to those files remotely, via the cloud storage or via remote desktop. It's the Software + Services model, but larger. Instead of giving me access to my data from wherever I need it, it puts my data wherever I am. A subtle distinction, but incredibly significant when you start to consider things outside of the mesh I've described so far.

The synchronisation platform Microsoft have built is where things start to get fun. It's all built on feeds. You know, RSS and Atom. Everything that is a list is a feed - list of devices? Feed. List of folders to sync? Feed. List of files and folders in each folder? Feed. Each file's metadata is stored as the item entry of a feed, and the file itself is referenced as an enclosure. And then they layer FeedSync on top of the feed. FeedSync is Microsoft's extension to feeds to provide versioning, history and conflict detection (but not conflict resolution. I don't know how Mesh handles conflicts).

This is probably the masterstroke of the platform. They haven't just built a platform for synchronising files and folders, they've built a platform for synchronising feeds. And feeds can hold any kind of structured data. Contacts, bookmarks, comments, status updates, calendars, bank transaction data, you name it. And they've used existing, open data formats. The data is available from the cloud as Atom, RSS or JSON, via a REST interface, using the Atom Publishing Protocol. All the current industry darling buzzwords - everything to make life easy to make mash ups.

And (the SDK isn't yet available but I think this is how it's going to work) you can easily imagine a web site that talks to the Mesh cloud interface and gets (secure) access to your Mesh data. And your rich, desktop application can make the same requests of the cloud. And because it's all synced, your rich, desktop application could simply use the current device's local version of the data (using the same REST API, of course), enabling offline access. Software + Services and mash ups from the same interface.

With this in mind, it's easy to see how you would share content amongst friends - simply start synchronising a feed between the two of you. And this is exactly what happens with the current implementation. There's even a feed of activities performed against the data being shared, to which users can add comments.

So, let's run with this, and see what falls out.

Subscribe to Twitter. Subscribe to Facebook. Blogs. Del.icio.us. All of this data is now aggregated, just like FriendFeed.

Take a photo with your phone, that just happens to be a device in the mesh. It automatically gets included into the mesh and flows to all the devices that are sharing that data. Want to publish that photo to Flickr? Create Flickr as a device and it will automatically get published. Someone leaves a comment on Flickr, and since you've subscribed to the Flickr feed, that comment gets synchronised to all devices as metadata associated with the photo.

Generalise that a little. Imagine all of these social networks as devices. All of a sudden your problems with the Centralised Me disappear. You data still lives in the data silo of each social network, but each social network is an integral part of your mesh. You can share the items on your social network, or you can share them from your mesh. Data Portability is less of a problem, because your data doesn't need to be portable; your mesh is a superset of all of these silos.

Want more than the 5 gig of storage Microsoft gives you? Create a device that's backed by Amazon's S3. It's all just feeds and https. In fact, Microsoft are already planning to enable enterprises to replace Microsoft's cloud storage and store data internally.

Subscribe to a feed of bank transactions, using OAuth. Subscribe to all of your banks' feeds and you've got enough data to build a client side aggregator. If the web sites of all the banks can make use of the data in the Mesh (with appropriate security), then every bank has the ability to include aggregator functionality in their site, and they now have an incentive for providing the feed in the first place.

Of course, this is just speculative, but it's easy to see that there is a huge potential to this model. It all depends on how Microsoft handles it. There are several warning signs. Joel pinpoints them quite well in his post "Architecture astronauts take over". Microsoft are really hyping the future of the platform while the current application is not as exciting. (Dare Obasanjo offers a good reply to that post.) And it's still very Microsoft centric. Authentication happens with Windows Live ID, they maintain the index of which devices are in your mesh, and the Live Desktop plays that coordinating role in notifications. People didn't trust Hailstorm, or Passport; will they trust Live Mesh? Will Microsoft allow splitting up of those central services? Logging in via OpenID? Federating the cloud storage? Allowing people to create their own meshes which can interact with Live Mesh services? We'll know more in the Autumn, when Microsoft hold their Professional Developers Conference.

So that's Live Mesh. Boil it down, and it's a deceptively simple premise - it synchronises feeds. The power (and the potential for failure) is the promise that everything is consumable as a feed. Will that happen?

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