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Redmond casts Mesh to catch developers

The service that Microsoft is unveiling Tuesday is a nifty way to sync files across multiple devices. It's also a key part of Microsoft's attempt to stay relevant in a world that no longer revolves around Windows.

The Live Mesh service that Microsoft unveiled Tuesday night is a peek of what Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie has been working on all these months.

In its initial incarnation, Live Mesh is mostly a file-sharing and folder-synchronization service, as well as a nice, easy way to access a PC remotely. Down the road though, it's Microsoft's latest attempt to find preeminence in a world in which Microsoft-based devices are just part of the mix.

Screenshots of Live Mesh
The Live Mesh widget tells you what's happening with your shares and syncs. Click the image for more early screenshots. CNET

As previously noted, the version that launches Tuesday is limited considerably from the broad service Microsoft envisions. (See Ozzie's recent memo to Microsoft employees for the big vision.) Although pitched as a way to seamlessly connect various devices, for now the only devices it is synching are Windows PCs (though Macs and Windows Mobile phones are just around the corner, we're told). For now, it's limited to a closed beta of about 10,000 testers, though Microsoft says it plans to bring on more people over time and have a broad beta around the time of this fall's Professional Developer Conference.

In the coming months, Microsoft hopes to bring Live Mesh closer to the product it envisions: a way for users to connect all of their key devices and keep them up to date with important data, and to further blur the line between online and desktop applications. If things are on track, we will see Microsoft add support for more devices and testers in short order.

At its core, Live Mesh is vintage Ozzie, touching on themes that go back to his Lotus Notes days such as a focus on collaboration and synchronization. The core notion is deliciously appealing. All of your data should live in the places you need it and stay up-to-date automatically.

But Microsoft's approach holds the possibility of peril, in addition to its considerable promise. Microsoft has outlined broad visions before only to be thwarted by either technical challenges (Longhorn and Cairo) or customer concerns (Hailstorm and Smart Tags). One potential sticking point with Mesh--it requires users to use Microsoft's Live ID for authentication, though the company said it is exploring whether it can support OpenID in the future.

Also, Microsoft faces significant competition in both what it is offering initially and with what it eventually envisions for Live Mesh. It will need to convince consumers and developers alike that its way is the best one.

As for the current stuff, there are lots of Web services that offer remote desktop or file-sharing, LogMeIn, GoToMyPC, SugarSync and Microsoft's own FolderShare--to name a few.

Obviously Microsoft hopes to go further, looking to make Mesh a place where developers can write applications that can live on all manner of devices with data and settings stored in the cloud and changes on one device automatically synchronized with other devices and the cloud.

But Microsoft is not alone in trying to be the platform of the Web. There are consumer efforts like Facebook and OpenSocial, and business ones, such as Amazon and Salesforce's

In an e-mail interview, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said that Microsoft was forced to respond to these other Web platforms.

"This time the centricity is the Internet which puts Microsoft on an even playing field as their desktop monopoly is negated through the network and new devices," he said. "After a decade of using their monopoly to stop (software-as-a-service) innovation through false prophecy and rhetoric; Microsoft has relented by delivering a service that is still too little too late without the platform as a service customers are demanding to succeed."

I guess Ozzie can't count Benioff among the Web 2.0 developers that will add-in Live Mesh support into their applications.

"Microsoft's answer to platform-as-a-service is just more .Net software in a world where cloud computing negates their monopolistic control of the Windows desktop," Benioff said. "Microsoft has let us all down through their lack of innovation; fortunately, the SaaS and PaaS movements will finally release us all from their old software models and outdated business practices."

Microsoft is trying to woo developers by letting them write their code in any number of different ways, from RSS to Atom to Javascript.

Even assuming it finds developers more willing than Benioff to bet on Microsoft, there's also the question of business model.

Microsoft has said it is exploring several models, including paid subscriptions and advertising, though it vowed to always offer a free service with at least 5GB of cloud storage. At the moment, though, it is just a free service and a consumer-focused one at that. Microsoft said it would have more to say on the business possibilities later in the year.

We'll have much more to say about Live Mesh in the coming days and I invite you to share your take below.

You can also check out Webware editor Rafe Needleman's hands-on review here.

See also Techmeme for more coverage of Live Mesh's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.