Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the opinions, thoughts, strategies or future intentions of my employer. These are solely my personal opinions. If you are seeking official position statements from Microsoft, please go here.

About a month ago Joel Spolsky wrote a rant about Microsoft's Live Mesh project which contained some interesting criticism about the project and showed that Joel has a personal beef with the Googles & Microsofts of the world for making it hard for him to hire talented people to work for his company. Unsurprisingly, lots of responses focused on the latter since it was an interesting lapse in judgement for Joel inject his personal frustrations into what was meant to be a technical critique of a software project. However there were some ideas worthy of discussion in Joel's rant that I've been pondering over the past month. The relevant parts of Joel's article are excerpted below

It was seven years ago today when everybody was getting excited about Microsoft's bombastic announcement of Hailstorm, promising that "Hailstorm makes the technology in your life work together on your behalf and under your control."

What was it, really? The idea that the future operating system was on the net, on Microsoft's cloud, and you would log onto everything with Windows Passport and all your stuff would be up there. It turns out: nobody needed this place for all their stuff. And nobody trusted Microsoft with all their stuff. And Hailstorm went away.
What's Microsoft Live Mesh?

Hmm, let's see.

"Imagine all your devices—PCs, and soon Macs and mobile phones—working together to give you anywhere access to the information you care about."

Wait a minute. Something smells fishy here. Isn't that exactly what Hailstorm was supposed to be? I smell an architecture astronaut.

And what is this Windows Live Mesh?

It's a way to synchronize files.

Jeez, we've had that forever. When did the first sync web sites start coming out? 1999? There were a million versions. xdrive, mydrive, idrive, youdrive, wealldrive for ice cream. Nobody cared then and nobody cares now, because synchronizing files is just not a killer application. I'm sorry. It seems like it should be. But it's not.

But Windows Live Mesh is not just a way to synchronize files. That's just the sample app. It's a whole goddamned architecture, with an API and developer tools and in insane diagram showing all the nifty layers of acronyms, and it seems like the chief astronauts at Microsoft literally expect this to be their gigantic platform in the sky which will take over when Windows becomes irrelevant on the desktop. And synchronizing files is supposed to be, like, the equivalent of Microsoft Write on Windows 1.0.

As I read the above rant I wondered what world Joel has been living in the past half decade. Hailstorm has actually proven to have been a very visionary and accurate picture of how the world ended up. A lot of the information that used to sit in my desktop in 2001 is now in the cloud. My address book is on Facebook, my photos are on Windows Live Spaces and Flickr, my email is in Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, while a lot of my documents are now on SkyDrive and Google Docs. Almost all of these services provide XML-based APIs for accessing my data and quite frankly I find it hard to distinguish the ideas behind a unified set of user-centric cloud APIs that was .NET My Services from Google GData. A consistent set of APIs for accessing a user's contact lists, calendar, documents, inbox and profile all stored on the servers of a single company? Sounds like we're in a time warp doesn't it? Even more interesting is that outlandish sounding scenarios at the time such as customers using a delegated authentication model to grant applications and Web sites temporary or permanent access to their data stored in the cloud are now commonplace. Today we have OAuth, Yahoo! BBAuth, Google AuthSub, Windows Live DelAuth and even just the plain old please give us your email password.

In hindsight the major problem with Hailstorm seems to have been that it was a few years ahead of its time and people didn't trust Microsoft. Funny enough, a lot of the key people who were at Microsoft during that era like Vic Gundotra and Mark Lucovsky are now at Google, a company and a brand which the Internet community trusts a lot more than Microsoft, working on Web API strategy. 

All of this is a long winded way of saying I think Joel's comparison of Live Mesh with Hailstorm is quite apt but just not the way Joel meant it. I believe that like Hailstorm, Live Mesh is a visionary project that in many ways tries to tackle problems that people will have or don't actually realize they have. And just like with Hailstorm where things get muddy is separating the vision from the first implementation or "platform experience" of that vision.

I completely agree with Joel that synchronizing files is not a killer application. It just isn't sexy and never will be. The notion of having a ring or mesh of devices where all my files synchronize across each device in my home or office is cool to contemplate from a technical perspective. However it's not something I find exciting or feel that I need even though I'm a Microsoft geek with a Windows Mobile phone, an XBox 360, two Vista laptops and a Windows server in my home. It seems I'm not the only one that feels that way according to a post by a member of the Live Mesh team entitled Behind Live Mesh: What is MOE? which states

Software + Services

When you were first introduced to Live Mesh, you probably played with the Live Desktop.  It’s pretty snazzy.  Maybe you even uploaded a few files too.  Hey, it’s a cool service!  You can store stuff in a cloud somewhere and access it anywhere using a webpage.  Great!

As I look at the statistics on the service though, I notice that a significant portion of our users have stopped here.  This pains me, as there’s a whole lot more you can do with Live Mesh.  Didn’t you hear all the hoopla about Software + Services?  Ever wonder, “Where’s the software?”

You might have noticed that on the device ring there’s a big orange button with a white ‘+’ sign.  The magic happens when you click that big orange button and opt to “add a device” to your mesh. 

So what excites me as a user and a developer about Live Mesh? I believe seamless synchronization of data as a platform feature is really interesting. Today I use OutSync to add people's Facebook photos to their contact information on my Windows Mobile phone. I've written my own RSS reader which synchronizes the state of my RSS subscriptions with Google Reader. Doug Purdy wrote FFSync so he can share his photos, music taste and other data on his Mac with his friends on FriendFeed. It may soon be possible to synchronize my social graph across multiple sites via Google Friend Connect. Google is working on using Google Gears to give me offline access to my documents in Google Docs by synchronizing the state between my desktop and their cloud. Earlier this week Apple announced mobile.me which enables users to synchronize their contacts, emails, calendar and photos across the Web and all their devices.

Everywhere I look data synchronization is becoming more and more important and also more commonplace. I expect this trend to continue over time given the inevitable march of the Web. Being able to synchronize my data and my actions from my desktop to the Web or across Web sites I frequent is extremely enabling. Thus having a consistent  set of standards-based protocols for enabling these scenarios as well as libraries for the key platforms that make this approachable to developers will be very beneficial to users and to the growth of the Web. 

At the rate things are going, I personally believe that this vision of the Web will come to pass with or without Microsoft in the same way that Hailstorm's vision of the Web actually came to pass even though Microsoft canned the project. Whether Microsoft is an observer or a participant in this new world order depends on whether Live Mesh as a product and as a vision fully embraces the Web and collaboration with Web companies (as Google has ably done with GData/OpenSocial/FriendConnect/Gears/etc) or not. Only time will tell what happens in the end.

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