Sunday, May 25, 2008

Live Mesh

Live Mesh could be either an extremely useful online product, one of the most irrelevant or the most insidious thing Microsoft has ever done.

It begins to solve one of the fundamental desires I have for online sharing, which is direct peer-to-peer sharing of baby photos and videos with my family. When I share photos, the full resolution original that I want to share should just end up on their hard drives. Google's "Hello" service -- which is shutting down on June 11 -- was one of the first and most flawed attempts at something like this. The basic problem is that it required everyone to constantly be logged in to the service long before people started leaving their computers on (or had broadband).

Live Mesh sort of solves this problem by having an intermediate "Live Mesh Desktop". 5 gigs of space on Microsoft servers that acts as an intermediary. When you share something, it ends up on your Mesh Desktop, then gets synced down to the computer of whomever you invite to your folders and sets up a Windows client to sync that folder. You can work on your Live Mesh desktop through a web browser, to see what's there, view stuff (via Silverlight), and manage the folders. Sharing is great because I can simply save to a local folder and it ends up on my Live Mesh. The program syncs it in the background.

We've seen this before, but this time it's built into Windows and supported by Microsoft. Great, right? Why might it end up being irrelevant?

Well, for one thing, I don't think a lot of people are yearning to keep giving essential services over to Microsoft. Although Microsoft does a very good job of making Mesh appealing for those who want sharing because it's so easy to use, there's the dark cloud of critical data being stored at evil, evil Microsoft. Granted, it syncs this stuff locally, but that doesn't change perception.

Second problem is that it doesn't really fit nicely into the media sharing ideals. I would like my family to get and sync the original digital photos so I know they're preserved across the country in NY and Chicago, not just on Microsoft's servers. Great, it does that. At the same time, it's not apparent why this is better than Picasa at first glance, even though Picasa only does JPEG. Picasa has an easy interface for uploading pictures, they have a better previewing system than Live Mesh, etc. Live Mesh is like an OS. To view a picture online through Live Mesh, the Silverlight preview control has to download the whole picture. If I'm storing originals, that could be megs and megs. One more time: for someone to even see what's there before they decide to copy it local (assuming they're not syncing all the time), they would have to download the whole thing to see the preview. Without a clear advantage for things like picture and video sharing, Mesh, at least for sharing media amongst other people, isn't that great (again, assuming your audience doesn't just want to sync the whole thing down).

The third major problem which may make it irrelvant, but also contributes to the third aforementioned thought about the product: Live Mesh is one of the most insidious things I've ever installed on my computer. Frankly, I'm surprised I still have it installed. When you install the Live Mesh client, it opens your machine up for Remote Desktop. If you want to sync folders, you must turn on this feature as well.

Windows has never been a commandline friendly OS, so remote desktop is arguably the most useful feature in Windows for IT professionals. Heretofore, it's a setting that you have complete control over. Someone wants to remote desktop into your machine, they need a password into your machine and a direct connection. It's entirely peer to peer it's simple to block remote desktop with a firewall, and someone would need the IP address of your computer to find you in the first place anyway.

Not so with Live Mesh. Anyone who hacks into your Hotmail account can now directly access your computer! Live Mesh punches a hole through the firewall in order to do this. It's so convenient, in fact, that all you have to do is log into my Mesh account, click on my computer and it will open up a remote desktop in an ActiveX control. Oh goodie.

Granted, it requires you to then log into the computer at that point, but how many people don't have the most secure passwords in the world on their home computers?

Now, for those of you who want Remote Desktop on Vista Home Premium, you can have it. So a lot of people are raving about this feature. But, I have found very few security concerns with this feature. WTF? I don't really understand why Microsoft had to take Live Mesh to the level of enabling Remote Dekstop and not being able to turn it off while keeping the syncing option. Live Mesh is sure to be banned from almost any self-respecting employer's computers soon enough because of this feature.

In any case, Joel Spolsky dismisses Live Mesh as just another syncing platform. Maybe he's right, but in my opinion the syncing issue hasn't been solved, and another difference is that Live Mesh would be one built into Windows. I agree with a lot of what he wrote anyway, and even though I see a lot of potential for the service, I'm not sure I'll use it.


Anonymous said...

How do I enable Mesh remote Desktop on Home Premium?

Trimbo said...

You just have to install the live mesh client on your home premium machine. Then when you go to, you'll be able to see that computer and get a remote desktop to it through the web browser. AFAIK you can't use the "real" remote desktop client, you have to use this activeX one in a web browser.

Anonymous said...

It says can't connect to the machine. My firewall also has both as allowed.

Trimbo said...

Not sure, maybe they disabled it for non-Ultimate machines since I last tried this back in May.