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Analysts: With Live Mesh, Microsoft tries to shift Web 2.0 playing field back to its strengths

Device-synchronization service continues its effort to blend desktop, Web computing

By Eric Lai
April 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp.'s development of a Web-based device-synchronization service called Live Mesh shows that the software vendor is trying hard to shed its desktop PC heritage without completely playing against its strengths, several industry analysts said today.

Live Mesh, which Microsoft announced as a "limited technology preview" release, is intended to enable technology users to easily and automatically synchronize word processing files, photos and other content among their various computers and other high-tech devices. Users also will be able to share content with friends, family members and other people who are using the new service, according to Microsoft.

"The announcement finally puts something real behind Microsoft's 'Software + Services' slogan," said Neil MacDonald, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Live Mesh is "not tied just to Windows," he noted. "It acknowledges that no single device will dominate in the world of the consumer Web."

For developers, he added, the synchronization service is language- and platform-neutral. And, MacDonald said, "unlike traditional Microsoft-architected products, the architecture of Live Mesh is based on small, loosely coupled services."

Nonetheless, Microsoft remains committed to a hybrid of desktop and Web computing, in opposition to Google Inc., Salesforce.com Inc. and other competitors that are betting on purely online-centric software-as-a-service (SaaS) or cloud computing models.

"Live Mesh represents an effort to catch up to the Web 2.0 movement," said Jeff Kaplan, an analyst at Thinkstrategies Inc., a SaaS-focused consulting firm. "Microsoft is now trying to define this trend in its own terms."

Jason Bloomberg, an analyst at ZapThink LLC, thinks that Microsoft is moving backward, not forward.

"Instead of coming up with an offering that enables Microsoft to participate in that world of collaborative, Web-based applications, they are taking a page from their old playbook and trying to move Web 2.0 to the proprietary Windows platform," Bloomberg said. "To be fair, Live Mesh is an exciting technology for Windows users and will likely contribute to a social networking environment similar to Web 2.0 — but as it will be proprietary, few people outside Microsoft would truly classify it as Web 2.0."

MacDonald said the online services market is young and ill-defined enough that the Live Mesh announcement immediately "puts Microsoft in the running with other providers of cloud-based platforms," including Google, Amazon.com and IBM.

But, he said, "what was clearly missing from the announcement is how Microsoft intends to monetize the technology over time." Live Mesh users will get 5GB of online data storage for free. MacDonald expects Microsoft to charge for higher amounts of data, "but this can't just be a storage-based fee model."

Moreover, since the technology is so new, Microsoft didn't trot out its usual plethora of business partners "to demonstrate what could be done with this platform," MacDonald said. He added that Live Mesh's synchronization capabilities are "cool, but most consumers could do something similar today — not as quickly or easily — just copying files around between devices."

The head of one potential rival — and partner — said that he thinks Live Mesh needs to be as ubiquitous as possible in order to catch on.

"It remains to be seen how seamlessly third-party services can be integrated into the mesh," said Aaron Levie, CEO and co-founder of Box.net, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up that offers online storage and file-sharing services. But he added that if Live Mesh "is as open as they purport," it likely will be "very complementary" to the service that his company offers.

"From a market standpoint," Levie said, "it's good to see new and innovative ways to move data to the cloud, though we'll likely see conflicts emerge in the battle between Microsoft's and Google's competing platforms."

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