In 2006, Ray Ozzie took over the title of Chief Software Architect from Bill Gates at Microsoft. Ozzie was instrumental in the development of Lotus Notes and his company Groove Networks was folded into Microsoft in 2005, leading to Microsoft Groove, one of the less well known programs included in the Microsoft Office family. Last week he announced some details of the project occupying his time for the last couple of years, Live Mesh.

Although the first group of testers is getting a look at Live Mesh, the service is still in its infancy. The features that are visible now overlap other Microsoft services, so it’s hard to know whether this is revolutionary or just another half-baked proprietary service that will be advertised badly, like so many of Microsoft’s recent products.

If we give Ozzie the benefit of the doubt, then Live Mesh represents a long-term effort to develop Microsoft services that are not focused on the old vision of a user sitting at a single computer. Live Mesh assumes we will be using multiple computers, smart phones and cameras and other mobile devices, and participating in multiple online communities – email, instant messages, text messages, online social networks and more. Live Mesh is intended to unify all of those, acting as the infrastructure to unify those devices and services and share information seamlessly with others.

Let me underscore the significance of that. Microsoft is developing an online cloud in which a computer is just one of many components. It is the first time Microsoft has embraced something that competes with (and potentially undermines) its lucrative Windows and Office franchises.

At the moment Live Mesh includes only the ability to sync files and begin remote desktop sessions on connected devices. File syncing is easy to understand: imagine that you’ve got a collection of photos.

  • Live Mesh stores that folder online, so it can be accessed from any computer running any operating system.
  • It allows you to create a hub of devices that each have a copy of that folder – the photos can be edited on your computer or displayed on your phone or played in a slideshow in your living room. When you edit a photo on your computer, the updated version is immediately synced with all the other devices.
  • You can share that folder with others, who might just view the photos or might be given permission to edit them.

That’s basically a combination of Foldershare (sync folders among multiple computers and share folders with others), and Windows Live Skydrive (store files online). Users of those services have been hoping for them to be consolidated, but that may wind up being superseded by Live Mesh. Microsoft often acts like a collection of little fiefdoms that don’t communicate well; this is the kind of overlap that deserves a clear vision and a single coherent choice for users.

It’s also exciting to think about easily being able to start a remote desktop session. From a web site, connect to your office computer, drop a file into your Live Mesh folder, and have it appear on your notebook computer a few seconds later – that’s good stuff! It’s possible to do that now with LogMeIn (and it’s one of the best features of Windows Home Server) but it gains much value if it’s part of a unified system.

File syncing is only the first and simplest function of an interface that’s being developed to support far more. At the moment it’s rudimentary and limited to PCs, but support for Macs and mobile devices will appear shortly. There won’t be a final product until much later this year.

If you want a long explanation of the service and how it fits into Microsoft’s past and future, this article gives the background and details about program features.

And if you want to put it in perspective, here’s a smart guy blowing up and predicting that Live Mesh spells corporate doom for Microsoft, “a confused company with no control over its creations and a new direction with each passing day. It demonstrates a core Microsoft frustration that partners, developers and now even customers are avoiding Microsoft for: A series of incomplete and incoherent solutions for general information technology use.” And he makes a good point:

“This amazing company, with billions of dollars invested in software creations supported and utilized by tens of thousands of partners worldwide has decided to scap all that and provide yet another incomplete synchronization framework to live in complete void of all its desktop applications existing sync features. I suppose the sync, presence, and access in Grove, SharePoint, Outlook, DFS, ActiveSync, Exchange ActiveSync, Office Live, FolderShare, Spaces, Live Messenger and Office Communicator was just too perfect that it needed no improvement, but a better way of unintegrated document-based sync was necessary.

“This from a company whose new slogan is ‘Better Together’?”

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