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Does Live Mesh Have Flesh?

Developers critique Microsoft's Software plus Services release.

Developers welcomed the newest details and technical preview of Microsoft's "Live Mesh" Software plus Services (S+S) platform, unleashed by Redmond last month to mixed reviews.

Amit Mital, general manager of Microsoft's Live Mesh group, gave the first demonstration of Live Mesh and announced the release of the early-access beta at O'Reilly Media Inc.'s Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on April 23. The demo revealed what looks to be more of a set of developer services and technologies than a true "platform." Live Mesh provides an always-on, online hub for syncing disparate end user data and connecting multiple devices.

Mital described Live Mesh as both a platform and a service that models users' digital relationships. It uses "the magic of software" to bring desktop PCs, laptops, cell phones, PDAs and digital cameras together into a "personal mesh" of a user's computing devices, Mital said. Microsoft describes it as a map of users' digital relationships-their devices, data, applications and the people they care about.

"With appropriate permission from the user," Mital explained, "developers can read information out of the Mesh to personalize their apps to the user, use the Mesh to communicate with and configure the user's devices, and to write data into the Mesh that will be available to the user on any of their devices."

Microsoft has designed the new platform/service to enable PCs and other devices to "come alive" by making them aware of each other via the Internet. Live Mesh is comprised of a platform for defining and modeling the relationships among a user's devices, data and apps; a 5GB Live Desktop "cloud service," which is an implementation of the platform hosted in Microsoft's data centers; and a client implementation of the platform designed to enable local apps to run offline and interact seamlessly with the cloud.

Live Mesh is also designed to provide a number of services in the cloud, including storage, pub-sub and communication relays, which developers can use to connect their applications and services with a user's personal mesh. All of Live Mesh's services and the runtime use a RESTful protocol to expose resources, Mital said, and it uses the Atom Publishing Protocol to manage those resources.

The initial Live Mesh preview has limited capabilities-essentially, it allows folders of files to be synchronized among disparate Windows-based PCs and the cloud; and it enables a simple, free way to remote PC desktops within the mesh. Microsoft is promising to support a range of devices-which observers say is a must, if the mesh is to be useful-but at present it only supports Windows-based PCs. Mital said that support for Macs and Windows Mobile devices is coming soon.

Developers Respond
Despite a few frustrations, Live Mesh appears to have potential, says Richard Campbell, a Microsoft MVP and longtime ASP.NET developer. "I'm excited that the technology addresses the fact that even the average person has more than one significant computing device in their life today," says Campbell, who's co-founder of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based Strangeloop Networks Inc. "It's not just the machine at home; it's also the laptop, and the cell phone and the work computer."

The IT industry is still feeling its way around the cloud, trying to determine whether "cloud computing" is going to amount to anything. Microsoft first promised much of what the company is touting in Live Mesh when it first disclosed .NET back in 2000-only to see most of that scaled back.

Just like the original .NET vision, Live Mesh doesn't appear to assure a specific product will materialize. But Campbell says with developer resources-like Live Mesh-that coders can utilize, "they're building on their existing infrastructure so we, as developers, can just do more."

Richard Campbell , Microsoft MVP Quote

The biggest thing going for Live Mesh is Microsoft's developers, he adds. "Live Mesh feels like an enabling technology," he says. "When you look at the SDK, and you start thinking about what you can do with the feed model and the eventing model, and then you start thinking about how Silverlight could represent the client in a scenario like that ... I think we're going to see some very cool applications come out of this."

But there are some limitations, he adds. For one, Campbell, a Canadian resident, notes that the initial beta is a United States-only release. Also, he's frustrated by Microsoft's decision not to support 64-bit operating systems in this release.

"Especially when you're talking about the guys who will be into the innovation, this is a problem," he says. "I've been 64-bit for a long time, so I had to drag out a 32-bit machine to really start playing with it."

Developer Steve C. Orr, another Microsoft MVP and author of "Beginning ASP.NET 2.0 AJAX" (Wrox, 2007), says his first impression of Live Mesh is that it's another "me too" technology meant to keep up with Google Inc.

"As usual, it's going to need to be way better than Google's offerings in order to steal the needed attention away from them," he says.

Room for Optimism
Orr does agree that, once developers get their hands on it, Live Mesh could be the source of some inventive output. "I can guarantee that there are going to be some very creative folks producing tools and apps using [Live Mesh] that will make the rest of the developers say, 'Why didn't I think of that?'" he says.

Microsoft MVP Dave Campbell (no relation to Richard Campbell) says he's not concerned that Microsoft is figuratively dipping a toe into this market with an early access beta release. "Since I'm an early adopter of Silverlight, I'm actually not one to complain about the time to delivery," Campbell says. "In my opinion the hype [around Live Mesh] wasn't overblown-but remember that's from the standpoint of a developer already primed to hear about it."

Microsoft MVP Ed Blankenship, configuration manager at Infragistics Inc., is equally sanguine about the prospects of Microsoft delivering on its Live Mesh promises. "Microsoft hasn't missed the ball too many times, so I'm always confident," he says. "They've come out with successful platforms in the past like .NET, and they have the opportunity to do it again."

He's also looking forward to leveraging his existing .NET developer skills in the Live Mesh environment. "Making it easier for companies to leverage their already existing .NET talent is always a win," Blankenship says.

Strangeloop's Campbell agrees: "I know how to use Visual Studio, and I'm always working the WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation] and I understand the communication protocols," he says. "All I really have to study is this new mesh layer and find out exactly how those things interact, and then start experimenting."
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