Peering through the Ozzie Mesh

Mesh didn't emerge in a vacuum. If you follow Ray Ozzie's career, there's been a consistent theme to his thinking about the nature of work in the computer age.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

By now, everyone--yours truly, included--will be hitting the "publish" button to weigh in on the cosmic significance (or insignificance) of Microsoft's Live Mesh technology. But I'm not going to snow you. At this juncture, it's too early to predict how this is going to play out.

If some other company had produced it, Mesh would be just another interesting product. But because it's coming out of Redmond, that can't be the case. It never is.

Ray Ozzie Dan Farber/CNET

Still, I think Microsoft is onto a big idea: a cloud service where users can tap into an always-available online hub that synchronizes all their digital data. But haven't we seen some of this before? A service which offers both synchronization and replication? Remember Lotus Notes and Groove? Hardly a surprise, then, to learn that Ray Ozzie was the creative force behind Notes, Groove, and now, Live Mesh.

If you follow Ozzie's career, there's a consistent theme to his thinking about the nature of work in the computer age. In the mid-1970s, he worked on the PLATO project at the University of Illinois, where he explored how to use networked computing for communication and group collaboration. That idea later found partial expression in Lotus Notes, which synchronized e-mail online and offline. However, Notes was a client-server technology where everything got stored on the server. After IBM acquired Lotus in 1995, Ozzie went on to found Groove, where he created a product that was about synchronization. However, it approached the question through a highly decentralized P2P topology where there was no notion of a "center."

Live Mesh takes things further, where the Web is the hub, but you incorporate a client. The architecture is designed to embrace all of your data. True to Microsoft form, this is your classic work-in-progress. Developers will get a look at the preview version this week, while a broader beta test begins around October.

If it works as advertised, this will be the culmination of Ozzie's career. Live Mesh is a core technology underpinning Microsoft's vision for software and services. It's a hybrid approach based on practical user scenarios. At this stage, the client is good for some things while meshing with the cloud is the path of least resistance for most users. It's not a zero sum game where it's cloud or client.

However, Ozzie's also fighting against a corporate legacy for botching big ideas. Hailstorm never got off the ground. Passport was a bust. The jury's still out on Trustworthy Computing, and Longhorn promised a lot but delivered a lot less in the form of Vista.

What are the odds Microsoft can sidestep that same fate with Live Mesh? A couple of items to consider:

•  Microsoft laid the groundwork when it introduced Web-based software and services under the "Live" rubric last year. You can argue that Mesh is the logical extension of that idea.

•  The success of Notes--which was both a application and platform--was predicated on fostering a vibrant ecosystem of developers. Groove never enjoyed that same support because it was hard to build distributed applications. But creating a third-party community of developers is old hat for Microsoft.

Steve Ballmer's got Ozzie's back on this one. And if Microsoft needed further incentive to get it right, there's always the specter of Google picking up the pieces...and the users if Mesh fails. Failure is just not an option.