Beta Man

Windows Live Mesh

Live Mesh is useful today, but it may be a blockbuster in the future.

Microsoft announced Live Mesh with a flourish more than a year ago, and not much has been heard from it since. Today, Live Mesh remains in beta, available for use by individuals interested in exploring its capabilities and developing applications and services around it. For those who take that time, they will find it a model that's worth exploring and eventually using in the enterprise.

In one sense, Live Mesh represents a compelling vision of working in the cloud from the context of the traditional Windows PC. It enables individual users to connect PCs and other devices to a "mesh" in the cloud, which provides the ability to access devices, exchange files and run applications from other systems that are part of the Mesh.

But that vision isn't yet fully realized. Part of the problem, of course, is it's still beta software, with fewer features than it needs in order to be compelling to most users. But more importantly, it needs the ability to add many more devices than Windows-based PCs and the latest Mac OS systems to fulfill the promise of a real mesh of computing systems.

Live Mesh and Live Desktop
The Live Mesh client installs from the Live Mesh Web site on each system joining a Mesh, usually within a few minutes and without difficulty. Once the software is installed, that system will show up on your Live Mesh display on the Web site, along with other computers you've added.

Figure 1
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The Live Desktop enables users to view all of their devices, add new devices and access individual devices on the Mesh.

The Live Mesh site display includes a feature called Live Desktop. The Live Desktop can be thought of as a Windows PC on the Web, where you can see all your synchronized folders in one place. You can store up to 5GB of files in one or more live folders, then open, edit, save and share them from any computer or mobile smartphone that's connected to the Internet.

In addition to setting up folders for your own use, you can also share folders with others. You can create additional folders for sharing, and the data in those folders will be shared only with those you invite to share. You do this in the Invite Members dialog box, where you type the e-mail addresses of the people you'd like to invite to share the folder, and Live Mesh will send an e-mail.

Those individuals are required to have a Windows Live ID and be part of the Live Mesh program. Once they sign in to Live Mesh and accept the invitation, they can access the folder on their Live Desktop and start synchronizing it with computers in their Mesh. Alternatively, they can view documents and images entirely within your Live Mesh folder.

Easy, Though Not Intuitive
Live Mesh isn't perfect, of course. It's Microsoft's first foray into working in the cloud, and the company lacks the pedigree and perhaps the imagination to do so with any panache. Despite a focus on the desktop, Live Mesh provides an interesting model of device access, sharing and collaboration based on devices connecting through the Internet.

You have to use your Windows Live ID to log in. Don't have a Windows Live ID? No worries -- all you have to do is sign up, and it's free. It prompts you for the log-in upon booting your desktop system, or you can choose to have it log you in automatically. If you prefer to do it manually, as I do, it requires that you log in to Live Mesh first upon system startup, and then log in separately with the same ID to the desktop. You have to wonder if Microsoft isn't pushing its Windows Live ID as a universal ID, yet the two log-ins seem like they still aren't very well coordinated.

With Live Mesh Remote Desktop, you can connect to a remote computer and use it as if you're sitting right in front of it. I tested this by adding two computers to my Mesh, and using one to access and run Microsoft Office on the other computer. The response, as you might imagine, was not fast but merely adequate for many simple tasks. After all, the communication channel wasn't just going across my network, but off into the Live Mesh.

In fact, I typically have about five computers on my network, so I kept adding computers to see just how flexible the Mesh is. I was able to add four of the five (my server was a Windows 2003 system and not supported), upload files from one system into a work folder, and share them on the Live Desktop among those computers. You can also easily take files from those folders and download them onto individual systems on the Mesh.

Figure 2
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By creating a new folder, users can upload files to share with others they invite to join their Mesh.

All Meshes are individual and private. To add a new device to your Mesh, you'll need to download and install the Live Mesh software for each device. Today, Live Mesh supports only Windows, requiring Windows Vista or Windows XP Service Pack 2, an 800MHz or faster processor, at least 1GB of RAM, 25MB of available hard disk space, Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 or later, Firefox 2.0 or later, or Safari 3.0 or later. It also requires a fast Internet connection, broadband or equivalent, and at least a 1024x768 display size.

The software download also supplies Mac support, but the Mac client requires Mac OS 10.5.1 or later to install the Live Mesh software. Today, other than smartphones, no additional devices are supported, although one can imagine the day when you'll be able to synchronize your MP3 player, GPS unit and similar devices, making it much more useful.

Combining Old and New
In the past, we've been able to do some of the things that Live Mesh does in different ways. Remote control software, or Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), has enabled us to connect with another computer, take control of that computer and run applications remotely. It's even possible to transfer files between the two computers using this approach.

Of course, we've also been able to store files in the cloud, at a location on the Internet, for access by ourselves or trusted colleagues. Vendors have long since rented out, and even given out, disk space on Internet-accessible servers for photos, generic files and other data.

But Live Mesh gives, or has the potential to give, two things that RDP and traditional tools aren't able to touch. First, you can use it with devices other than PCs. This advantage is partly theoretical, because-with the exception of smartphones-Live Mesh clients aren't yet available for other computers or devices, but it's interesting enough that people don't dismiss it entirely. In fact, when you can add a variety of other personal and group devices, Live Mesh will likely become an essential part of working.

Second, and more practical and immediate, you can automatically synchronize data between computers in your Mesh. Even if your Mesh consists of only a set of Windows computers, the ability to see and control them from a central location on the Internet has some value. In the case of my network, I can use it to easily communicate among different systems and transfer files. I often travel while I work, and can use Live Mesh to store a pretty hefty number of work files that I can move among my different systems.

In the enterprise, you can use Live Mesh to provide instant storage and collaboration and storage space for ad hoc workgroups. If several people must work together on a single project, it makes sense to create an individual Mesh and then have other members of the group join it and share one or more folders.

So Live Mesh is somewhat useful during its beta phase, in that it enables viewing of other computers in the Mesh, as well as file transfer and remote control. Furthermore, with the application of the Mesh across multiple systems, it's not strictly one-to-one, but can be applied to multiple computers and even across workgroups.

Both enterprises and individuals should be looking at Live Mesh today, even if it doesn't serve their immediate needs. For enterprises, it looks like it could become a collaboration tool. For individuals who have the challenge of managing multiple computers and other devices while working and traveling, the service offers a compelling model for system interaction. In either case, it could be how we're all working in the not-too-distant future.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.


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