Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Microsoft Bets Against The Cloud With Mesh

Last Night Microsoft announced a new product and service called Microsoft Mesh. It appears that everyone thinks this is the second coming. A really big deal.

I am unimpressed.

Well that’s not quite true. I am sure the technology is impressive. I just don’t buy the grand strategic vision. Mesh is a system that allows users to synchronize between multiple PCs and eventually cell phones. It is a very natural extension of the work Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie did with Groove before he joined Microsoft. Mesh is essentially a synchronized file system, where files on one computer can be automatically synchronized to a user’s other computers or to the cloud. The idea is that you create a "mesh" of devices, and you can make sure that any documents you have are on all of your devices. Mesh also allows for remote access to your computer so that you can actually run applications on your computer from another computer in the Mesh.

This is certainly the most robust synchronization system that has ever been implemented. But in my mind, the key question is, in the future how important will local file storage really be? And how often do average users really want to remotely run software from one machine on another?

The entire software industry is moving towards a world where all software runs in browsers from servers in the cloud. Microsoft’s strategy with Mesh is to maintain desktop software’s relevance. They would like the world to continue running local software and to keep files locally.

The reason for this is simple. Microsoft makes most of its money from Windows and Office. If people started using online alternatives to Office in large numbers, Microsoft would be crippled. Mesh is Microsoft’s effort to stop the software-as-a-service tsunami that could severely damage them.

I don’t think it will work.

I believe the future is one in which eventually all or most of our data will be stored in the cloud. Desktops and cell phones will, for most tasks, be terminals to the cloud, and so the concept of synchronization will be meaningless for most users. To be sure, there are solid use cases for synchronization but I don’t think sync is the best model for most people in most scenarios. And yes, Mesh does allow you to store data in the cloud as another data point in the mesh. But adding the desktop sync layer is, for most people, just not necessary, and I suspect will be generally perceived by mainstream users as an irrelevant added layer of complexity.

Personally, I am wary of installing some additional thing on my computer to make all of this work. Microsoft technology is rarely flawless and I don't want to be dependent on it if I don't have to. And as it is, I am essentially always online, and though I work with a Mac and a PC I never really feel like I am missing anything by not having them synched. For the most part, everything I need is already in the cloud, which allows me to access my data from any browser at any time.

And so, to me, Mesh is just the wrong answer. I am not saying it’s a bad thing. I just think it suggests a desire to change the momentum of the move to the cloud that can’t be stopped. The future is not the desktop. Microsoft should be busy doing the admittedly very hard job of making a version of Microsoft Office work from the browser. I would much prefer, instead of putting more software on my desktop, that Microsoft be working on getting most of my software *off* the desktop and into the cloud.

8 comments:

  1. "This is certainly the most robust synchronization system that has ever been implemented"

    Umm... is anyone in a position to say this yet? This is Microsoft we are talking about, after all.

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  2. Well, yes you are right. We don't actually know whether it will *work*. I guess I really meant to say most sophisticated. Because they have a *lot* going on under the hood and 100 engineers working on it. But indeed that does not necessarily translate into robust.

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  3. It's too little too late. If Microsoft had made this a few years ago, maybe it would have taken off. But it's the generation where everything is already stored online. Microsoft decided to come join the party a few years after it started.

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  4. Interesting, I saw it and thought "I WANT THAT."

    I've built web sites and various tools to provide shared document and collaborative workspaces for users and the thing I constantly run into is that people just don't use them. They have the files on their local computer and only use the online repositories as an afterthought. Usually calling someone in the office from the road and asking them to put the file onto the site so they can get to it.

    I've always wished for the ability to have people's local documents transparently synching with their laptops and the web repository or whatever.

    There have certainly been attempts at this. WebDAV is one of the most transparent, but not terribly intelligent. Groove does the synching but is a locked environment. The Live Mesh looks like it has a lot of potential.

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  5. For routine noncreative information stored in documents, sure, maybe it will work okay. The world actually does need a better way to synch calendar information. Anything of real importance, though -- and the people creating it -- I suspect won't match the MS target market and Mesh won't be what they need.

    I've spent years doing everything I can to be outside Microsoft's target market.

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  6. Not sure you quite understand what Mesh is. For a start files *are* synchronized to the cloud as well as your devices. Cloud only access would suck.

    second, this is not a file synchronization system. File Sync is just an application of the technology. This is more of an abstract data store in the cloud that can be written to and read inside applications. Those applications will receive events when the data is changed, by another device or by another user on the same shared object.

    All of this plus the ability to host applications on the virtual desktop running in the browser.

    So far I'm impressed. I think the people that aren't haven't really grasped it yet.

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  7. Joe,

    I fully understand that mesh is also an API. But mesh will fail if the consumer facing piece fails so at this point the API is not meaningful.

    I am not sure what you mean though by saying it can *host* applications. There is no facility in mesh to do anything other than provide synch services, which to me is not hosting, but merely providing an API. Hosting would be letting an app live in the MS cloud which mesh doesnt do.

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  8. Very good points.

    I tried out Mesh, selected a folder which was 18GB's only to find out they only offer 5GB's of space.

    Did Mesh warn about this? NO!
    Was I able to cancel the sync operation? NO!

    It might have its uses, but to me the ability to store photos and home family movie on the cloud is really useful. Sadly the free offering from Microsoft is not up to the task.

    If I was going to pay for something, you can be sure it could come in the form of a drive that shows up in explorer.

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