April 25, 2008: 2:46 PM EDT
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Microsoft swears it's embracing open standards - really!

Software giant offers a peak at Live Mesh, its new software-plus-services open platform to link multiple devices seamlessly.

By Michael V. Copeland, senior writer

Microsoft is positioning Live Mesh as a consumer service, but it's not hard to imagine business applications.

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- One thing Microsoft isn't good at creating is buzz - that's Apple expertise. But if there's anything that set the crowd talking this week at Web 2.0 Expo, one of the year's largest gatherings, it was the software giant's upcoming Live Mesh service.

Live Mesh promises to let consumers connect and interact with all of their devices on the Internet. So a desktop at home, a PC at work, a laptop, a music/video player, a mobile phone - anything in thoery that can connect to the Internet - gets linked and is available via the "mesh" to anything else. Another virtual device, what Microsoft calls a "Live desktop," resides on the Web and can be used to access all your other connected devices.

"In many respects this marks a sea-change for Microsoft," said Joshua Holbrook, Yankee Group's director of enterprise research, after Microsoft announced Live Mesh on Wednesday. "They are taking a huge step toward opening up" their software so that it permeates the Internet the way it dominates desktop computers.

Open? Microsoft? Let's be frank here: The two haven't exactly gone hand in hand - just ask any number of high courts around the globe. But as computing continues to shift more toward the Web and away from the desktop even Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) doesn't have a choice. Live Mesh may be Microsoft's admission that the future of computing is open, and that even if it had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion, it has come to it.

The "mesh" is Microsoft's own take on a new concept known as "cloud computing," or the delivery of computing services over the Internet instead of the desktop. Microsoft is looking to offer a combination of storage plus software and services that it hosts in its own datacenters. The twist with Live Mesh is that it also makes a connection to all your desktop applications, all your local devices, and allows the option to work offline or in the "cloud."

That combination is powerful, and there isn't a company better suited to build a service that connects everything together than Microsoft, with its expertise in operating systems both for mobile and desktops, server software and the Internet. "We think we have a natural advantage here," says George Moromisato, a software designer and part of the team that joined Microsoft with Ray Ozzie, after it acquired Groove Networks, a developer of "virtual office" collaboration software, in 2005. "Bringing it all together is going to require a platform, and we're a platform company."

At the Web 2.0 conference on Thursday, Moromisato and a few colleagues demonstrated simple consumer applications that showed how you can invite a person or list of people to view a folder of documents or a slide show. You might drag some photos into your "mesh" on the Web, invite some friends to view them, and then start a live chat or gather comments for digesting later. You can also invite friends to add their own photos, edit them, or tag them. The same dynamic interaction applies to documents.

For now, Live Mesh is limited to an already oversubscribed 10,000 users. An open public beta is expected by the fall, and a Mac version is coming even sooner. The business model is uncertain, though users will get 5GB of storage for free. Beyond that, whether there is a fee for greater storage capacity or an ad-supported version, remains to be seen.

The applications on stage at Web 2.0 were some that Microsoft ginned up to demonstrate what Live Mesh could do. And while it is being positioned for the moment as a consumer service, in a work world of increasing globalization and home offices there are bound to be plenty of business applications. For example, you can imagine using it to collaborate on a project with a colleague, or work throught details with a customer halfway around the world. It might be as simple as accessing photos and videos that are stuck on the work PC from home so you can prepare for a presentation on Monday.

The success of Live Mesh ultimately depends on outside developers getting excited enough to create other applications that can take advantage of the platform which, in turn, will get users excited. And that is where its openness comes in. If developers are going to take up this challenge, Microsoft needs to deliver on that promise. Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) MacBooks and iPhones need to be able to connect to the Mesh as easily as Windows machines.

Moromisato and his team swear that their design does that. If it isn't open and easy to connect to, it isn't useful, Moromisato says. "One of the lessons we learned when working on collaboration at Groove, is that if you try to force people to use all the same technology, they won't have it, and then nobody uses it," he says. "We won't exclude anyone."

Easy to say, but some people aren't buying it yet. "It looks like it could be very interesting, as long as it truly is open," says Peter Daman, the chief information officer for a large government contractor. "But it's Microsoft, so you never know."  To top of page

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