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Microsoft Live Mesh: Test Drive

Microsoft Mesh Live Desktop
Live Mesh opening screen (in browser)

I’ve been participating in the technical preview of Microsoft’s Live Mesh — their device and data synchronization platform that promises, in the company’s words, "to use the magic of software and internet services to connect and bring devices together into your own personal ‘mesh’… this new software-plus-services platform enables PCs and other devices to ‘come alive’ by making them aware of each other through the Internet." For now, the product is only for PCs running Vista or XP — but support for Mac and additional devices is coming. For those who haven’t been able to try it out, yet, I’ve detailed the mesh experience and some thoughts on how successful it is and where it might be heading.

Installation

Live Mesh Install
Live Mesh Install
Live Mesh Login
Live Mesh Login
Live Mesh Desktop Widget
Live Mesh Desktop Widget
Download device client (Fig. 1). Post-install Windows Live login (Fig. 2). Hover over System Tray icon to view client widget (Fig. 3). Click photos to enlarge.

Live Mesh consists of a "cloud" component, where your virtualized workspace exists and files are stored (5 GB storage limit, for now), as well as client-installed components that act to synchronize the data you store in the cloud across different devices. Upon visiting the Live Mesh site for the first time and logging in with your Windows Live ID, you are presented with a screen that lists the access points to your cloud workspace — initially, via Live Desktop alone (see below). In order to add devices click on the "Add Device" option (Fig. 1) to download the client-specific installer — in this case for desktop PC. Upon installation of the client runtime, you are presented with the login screen that will appear each time the device is booted (Fig. 2). Once logged into your "cloudspace", the client widget resides in your system tray and will show the status of your devices, shared folders and messages when you mouse over the icon (Fig. 3).

Sync Devices

Add folder to Mesh
Add folder to Mesh
Folder status in client widget
Folder status in client widget
Invite others to share your mesh
Invite others to share your mesh
Add local folder to Mesh (Fig. 4). Widget showing folder status (Fig. 5). Add/invite others to share folder (Fig. 6). Click photos to enlarge.

In order to sync data across devices and your Live Desktop, you have to add local folders to the mesh. Since the client application hooks into Explorer, you need only highlight a folder on your computer, right-click and select "Add folder to your Live Mesh", which will bring up a dialogue allowing you to name the share, as well as determine which of your devices should sync to it (Fig. 4). Once set, the folder icon changes appearance to indicate its status as a synced folder and gets added to the status widget (Fig. 5). From this point, any changes made to the folder on any device linked to it will be reflected almost immediately across devices (subject, of course to the speed of your internet connection). Additionally, once a folder is added to your mesh, you may right-click on it, choose "Live Mesh options" and invite others to join your mesh by sharing sync with this asset (Fig. 6). Remote users sharing this folder will also be able to view the messages you associate with this synced asset, providing work collaboration features.

Live Desktop

Live Desktop Explorer
Live Desktop Explorer
Messaging interface
Messaging interface
Rich media via Silverlight
Rich media via Silverlight
Live Desktop explorer (Fig. 7). Post message to shared users (Fig. 8). Silverlight-enhanced media viewer (Fig. 9). Click photos to enlarge.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Live Mesh involves the Live Desktop which allows browser-based access to a virtual workspace containing your meshed assets. The Live Desktop Explorer (Fig. 7) is like a stripped-down version of Windows Explorer where you can manage synced folders and files, upload and download files, review "news" related to your shared assets’ status and send messages to users participating in your mesh (Fig. 8). The Explorer loads the Silverlight runtime to provide rich-media previews of your graphic assets — now just for static graphics but video to come, soon (Fig. 9). It’s not hard to imagine how this feature will develop over time, given Microsoft’s ambitious plans for Silverlight. Live Desktop turns the cloud component of Live Mesh into a rudimentary desktop/server that can be accessed from anywhere and that allows the ability to make changes to assets that will be reflected immediately across your mesh, and the devices (and collaborators) who share in it. Those who are champing at the bit for Microsoft to move its productivity apps into the cloud may take heart. It’s not Office, but it’s damned close to Sharepoint…

Remote Desktop

Connect to Home from Work desktop
Connect to Home from Work desktop
Live Desktop remote connect
Live Desktop remote connect
In-browser remote control
In-browser remote control
My work desktop showing meshed devices (Fig. 10). In-browser remote desktop connect (Fig. 11). Remote desktop access within browser (Fig. 12). Click photos to enlarge.

Not only can you sync data items across devices, you can control those devices directly. Microsoft has provided two methods of device remote control that reflect the local + cloud, software + services dyad of the Live Mesh design. When working from a device with the client runtime installed, you may connect to any device that appears in the list of devices tracked in the client widget. Figure 10 shows my computer at work and the list of available devices with the option to connect to my Home desktop. Clicking that option opens an instance of what I believe to be a re-worked Terminal Services client window to the remote device. However, as with Live Desktop, the real magic happens in the browser. If accessing Live Mesh via browser, you can choose to connect to one of your devices (Fig. 11) and an Activex-based remote desktop client will load in the browser, which provides full remote control of a computer from within the browser (Fig. 12) — including those behind firewalls, without need of a VPN connection. IT departments may not be thrilled with that, but I am.

Review of the Preview

So is it good? Well, for a beta product that isn’t even out of limited testing, it’s remarkably good. I’ve only found a couple of glitches (for some reason, I cannot download files from Live Desktop at home — but that may be a fault in my Internet Explorer install) but otherwise have found features to work as expected and have already come to rely on it in my daily Work->Home->Work workflow. Others in reviewing this current offering have noted that there are other products already out there that provide a number of these services better (e.g., Box.net for online storage and collaboration, GoToMyPC for remote control) and that’s all true — the storage limit in Live Mesh is skimpy and the remote desktop client is pokey — but these things will improve over time and, besides, critics who harp on these things are missing the point. Microsoft may not be the first mover in these areas, but their enormous reach means that their implementations will, perforce, change the way people work with computers, cell phones and anything else that the "mesh" can encompass. And don’t forget, this is just their first pass at this. The asset and messaging synchronization and remote control features are nice enough — but this looks like the first pass at a web operating system, where cloud-based applications can run on top of any kind of hardware. In a release announcement, Amit Mital, the Microsoft manager for this product listed the ultimate goals that they are targeting:

  • "Unified Device Management" – enabling your devices to report into a common service, for status, for health, or to report their location.
  • "Unified Data Management"- or the transparent synchronization of files, folders, documents & media, the bi-directional synchronization of arbitrary feeds, of all kinds, across your devices and the web.
  • "Unified Application Management" – for centralized web-based deployment of apps across the devices you own.
  • "Centralized Management" – where you could configure and personalize your devices and remote control into them from just about anywhere.

Sure sounds like an operating system to me… This video further explores the potential of the Live Mesh platform:

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