A killer app on the Horizon? – Live Mesh and the future of synchronized storage

Update: Live Mesh is a product that has seen numerous updates during the year so far. Check out the launch, our sequence of 3 detailed reviews, our interview with David Treadwell, get invites or view the most recent Live Mesh posts here.

Ray Ozzie gets criticism for speaking too generally, but we’re finding out that he was speaking pretty specifically, at least in his keynote at Mix08.  We kind of like this penchant Ozzie is developing for dropping code names into keynotes :)

Just imagine the possibilities enabled by centralized configuration and personalization and remote control of all your devices from just about anywhere. Just imagine the convenience of unified data management, the transparent synchronization of files, folders, documents, and media. The bi-directional synchronization of arbitrary feeds of all kinds across your devices and the Web, a kind of universal file synch.

Just imagine the possibilities of unified application management across the device mesh, centralized, Web-based deployment of device-based applications. Imagine an app platform that’s cognizant of all of your devices. Now, as it so happens, we’ve had a team at Microsoft working on this specific scenario for some time now, starting with the PC and focused on the question of how we might make life so much easier for individuals if we just brought together all your PCs into a seamless mesh, for users, for developers, using the Web as a hub.

Before you know it, you in this audience are going to have the option of being the first to try out an early technology preview of this simple but incredibly useful new software and service. As this product emerges just over the horizon, I think you’ll find it to be quite intriguing and key in delivering upon a compelling vision of a personal device mesh and of connected devices.

While it’s easy to take this as more Ozzie hand-waving futuristic talk, this time he is describing a specific product, one that we’ve been calling Horizon, and Mesh, and is now being referred to internally as “Live Mesh”.  For the sake of consistency (and to acknowledge two new urls we found: www.LiveMesh.com, and www.mesh-beta.com ) we’ll start calling it Live Mesh here, until we hear different.  This is Microsoft, and the naming has only been referenced, and not officially announced, so of course it is subject to change. 

Yesterday George Moore, General Manager of Windows Live Platform Services, laid out a technical overview of the Windows Live Platform, and in doing so laid out the basics of how Live Mesh will work.  Utilizing elements of AtomPub, Feedsync, the Microsoft Sync Framework, and SSDS, Live Mesh will sync information across computers and devices, and store information in the cloud, accessible from the web.  It will resolve conflicts with collaborative syncing, and allow for inviting others to collaborate on mesh folders stored in the cloud.  A client installed on local devices will produce “Live Mesh folders”, wrapping them in a way that they can be easily synchronized.  Live Mesh will allow remote access to devices in “the mesh”, not only allowing for access to files and folders, but applications as well. 

Of course there are many programs, from Microsoft and from 3rd parties, that offer at least some of these services.  What will distinguish Live Mesh are the “one stop shopping” availability, the underlying framework that will take care of conflicts and transactional issues (for example, if a network connection is lost during a sync, the Microsoft Sync Framework will recover from the loss, and allow for a retry when connection is restored), interaction between devices in a mesh, and a robust cloud storage solution.

Of course there are many questions unanswered at this point.  Storage space is one.  SkyDrive allows for 5gb of storage, and is built on the common storage backend developed as part of the Windows Live Platform Services, but as yet SkyDrive is neither dynamic in its storage size (a la SSDS, SQL Server Dynamic Storage), nor exposed via a set of APIs to allow a “build your own” scenario.  All that would seem to be possible, but will Live Mesh use SkyDrive or some other storage mechanism?.  Live Mesh is going to be of limited usefulness if it has a set storage limit (5gb would get used up pretty fast, and even while 10gb makes it more interesting, for some it still won’t be enough), but if or how it will use dynamic storage, and how that model is monetized, is not at all clear.  Granted, having access to data stored locally would mitigate the need for cloud storage and fit within the Software + Services strategy that David Treadwell talked about in our discussion with him. If Live Mesh maximizes the use of local storage and local computing power, getting at local files quickly and easily, large cloud based storage may not be as important within the mesh.

Speaking of SkyDrive, and especially if it is not specifically included as a storage destination, what happens to both SkyDrive and Foldershare?  Live Mesh would seem to specifically supersede Foldershare, and SkyDrive would of very limited value if a separate Live Mesh solution is available as well.  Questions like these will be interesting, as the politics that require decisions on what stays and what goes are only going to be compounded when and if a Yahoo! acquisition is finalized, all across Microsoft. Skydrive and Foldershare are very much both “now” products, with Live Mesh slated for “future” release. Consider also that MS may have bought Foldershare for patents, or to avoid legal issues, and that it does fill the void, at least for the time being.  It may not be surprising that Foldershare recently only received a somewhat insignificant UI upgrade.  However any conjecture about what will happen to Foldershare is only that.  At some point something will have to give in regards to Live Mesh vs. any or all other Microsoft sync and storage services, we would hope, anyway.

Another question about Live Mesh involves performance, of course.  How well does the synch platform work at scale, and what will it take to synchronize folders so that they are available to others/other devices?  If you’ve used the new beta of Synctoy (beta 2), you’ve used elements of the Sync Framework.  It was rebuilt to take advantage of the new technology, according to Neil Padgett, speaking at Mix.  Like most if not all synchronizations (including Synctoy), Live Mesh will take longer initially to synchronize folders, but after that will only update elements that have been changed, making the process much faster once the initial synch has been made.  Still, and especially for devices like mobile phones that are on for limited amounts of time, performant sync will be important.

Live Mesh, if it offers enough storage options to be useful, and is performant, could be the killer app of Windows Live.  Offering a seamless mesh of devices all tied together, including a cloud storage piece allowing for access to information even without access to your devices (kiosk, friend’s house, etc.), collaboration on files with the conflicts handled painlessly, and access to a mesh of devices,  it could solve lots of problems in a world that increasingly not only uses computers but many types of devices, all with a desire to be in sync.  Microsoft spent Mix announcing (perhaps largely un-noticed) the building blocks of Live Mesh, and are being refreshingly open about the platform, but as George Moore hints, Live Mesh might just put it all together:

While all of the above code is available for initial use, this stack is not complete – there is more to come at even higher levels of abstraction. I’ll leave you with an additional foreshadowed reference to future announcements in this space, again quoting from Ray Ozzie’s MIX08 keynote:

Before you know it, you in this audience are going to have the option of being the first to try out an early technology preview of this simple but incredibly useful new software and service. As this product emerges just over the horizon, I think you’ll find it to be quite intriguing and key in delivering upon a compelling vision of a personal device mesh and of connected devices.