As technologists, we can’t help but pay attention to the walls and obstacles that litter the technology landscape. We think about them. We curse them. We go to great lengths to navigate around them. What we have to be wary of is allowing that landscape, obstacles and all, to forcibly narrow our view of what is or is not possible.
A great example of this is the distinction between what would call a "desktop" or "OS" and the Web. The Web has taken on application-like characteristics, and the desktop is becoming increasingly Web-like. We spend an enormous amount of mental labor thinking about how it’s all going to come together. Where’s the data? How do we sync it? What about mobile devices? Other devices? Game consoles? And how do we share things? How do we allow people to collaborate? These are all difficult problems that are shaped by the constraints we assume are immovable today.
Microsoft has let loose the PR machine on Live Mesh. The news wires and blogs are just now digesting the news. A glimmer in Ray Ozzie’s eye just a couple of years ago, Mesh is unique and ambitious because it’s based on a premise that most technologists feared working back from: people neither care about nor are aware of where their digital assets live.
People simply want everything to be everywhere. Their phones. Their media centers. Their laptops. They want everything to simply be incarnations of a single digital identity. They don’t care about the "cloud", the syncing puzzles, the challenges of making offline work seamlessly. Mesh is the first initiative I’ve come across that is working back from that notion.
In essence, if you plug anything into your Mesh, everything is everywhere. The music in your living room will also be on your phone, on your laptop and in your car. This all happens by virtue if being plugged in. Not because you’re moving files around on portable drives.
What’s really interesting about Mesh is that it isn’t just about files. Lying within is a syncing protocol that any application can tap into and enjoy the ability to sync everywhere.
And what of the coming age of utility computing? Here’s my take on it: nobody cares about how an application gets to you. We’re moving from CD’s and DVD’s to installable executables to zero-step installs. So what? Yes, we may be headed towards a world of subscription applications, but that’s a business model shift, not an end-user experience shift. The real significance for end users is:
- The ability to get rich, compelling applications quickly and with little effort. That’s happening today on the Web (Ajax, Flash) and it’s going to get better. And…
- The ability to get to your information assets from anywhere with zero effort.
Mesh is attacking the second bullet head on. Its vision sees all these clients and devices – the web, mobile, desktops – as simply nodes of a larger representation. Of course, to tackle such a vision, you need to be able to exert enormous control over the wide array of devices and platforms out there. It’s arguable whether anyone else can even consider it. Mozilla is sort of trying this with their lab initiative called Weave but there are certain hard realities that Mozilla and anyone else is going to have to face.
Microsoft is working with what they got. Windows. XBox. Windows Mobile. The list goes on and while they’ve mentioned support for Macs and such, you’ve got to believe that this is all about leveraging their position on their current platforms. What’s interesting here is that the web and the browser is marginalized within this vision. It places players like Google in an odd position. While Microsoft has tried (and failed) to play on Google’s turf in the search engine wars, Mesh hints at a shifting of the playing field. In this vision, Microsoft has home field advantage.
Of course, there’s still execution. It takes a lot of guts and a hell of a lot of resources to go after such a grand vision. Microsoft obviously has the resources. There’s still a lot to do and prove out before this vision is realized.