Microsoft has pulled the wraps off of Live Mesh, and, for the first time in recent memory, the Internet is going gaga for a new Microsoft product. Mesh promises to give you access to all of your applications, files, and assorted other digital stuff on any computers you use, anywhere in the world. Unlike other services that only work when your PC is turned on, Mesh harnesses the power of The Cloud to give you access to the files you need, even if the rig they're stored on is turned off. Oh, and you can share stuff with your friends too, if they install the Mesh client. At first blush, that seems like a worthy project, and would really solve one of my biggest problems--from 1999.
Yes, I know that Mesh is supposed to be a new platform, a series of APIs that developers can then use to harness its sharing and syncing power within their own apps on a whole mess of platforms (including mobile and Mac). My problem is that when I see a new platform launch, I expect the people who create it to be incredibly in tune with its possibilities and power. I expect them to create an amazing demo app to spark the imagination of developers and consumers alike, giving an intriguing taste of what fully fledged apps using the new technology could deliver.
Mesh currently doesn't deliver any intriguing tastes. Best case, it's a boring clone of a dozen other apps that perform exactly the same functions better and with less annoyance. Worst case, it's a deeply flawed user experience that's going to create an organizational nightmare for anyone who uses the product.
Part of the problem is that the guys that Microsoft's PR machine lets speak about any products are so heavily coached that they lose the ability to describe what their product does. Instead of saying "Hey, this software lets you access your important files from any PC", they spout a bunch of Microsoftese and talk about 'platforms', 'experiences', and 'scenarios' until normal folks chuck their secret decoder rings out the window and decide to have a sitdown with a nice cup of coffee and catch the last 20 minutes of Oprah. Don't believe me? Watch this 25-minute long Channel 10 video where a couple of hapless, over-coached engineers try to explain what Mesh does and why anyone would be interested.
The second problem is that the Mesh beta delivers virtually no features that aren't already available from fully-fledged competitors. Tech demos for a product that promises the type of broad sweeping changes that Mesh does should be exciting, delivering revolutionary new features that leave users aching for the final release of the software so they can try it out too (remember scrounging for Gmail beta invites? I do). Sure, the underpinnings of what Ray Ozzie's team has built are technically very neat and buzzword-friendly, but in its current state, Mesh does nothing that dozens of other apps do better, the least of which are Microsoft's own Live Skydrive and Foldershare. Add a taste of GoToMyPC and you've got a mom-friendly competitor for Mesh that didn't require any fancy architecture development. Maybe I just don't get it. Sure, at some point Mesh might let me access my desktop apps from other PCs, but right now that sounds pretty much like magic, and not just for techincal reasons. I could be wrong, but I don't think many software vendors are going to be very stoked about people using one copy of their apps on their work, home, and mobile machines.
I'm willing to set the larger problems aside and assumethat the interface design, which took the Channel 10 guys 25 minutes to explain, will be improved before the beta opens up. I'm also hoping that sometime in the not too distant future, it will sync the data that's much more crucial to me than 99% of my files, like contacts, calendar, and browser bookmarks. You know, just like .mac does.
What's the third problem? There's really not a large audience for Mesh file syncing, and it's only getting smaller as portable computing takes over more of the market. Think about it, non-tech saavy folks who regularly use a whole bunch of different computers and care that their files aren't in sync at home and at work don't really exist. Sure, like many Maximum PC readers, I'm a potential user since I regularly use a whole bunch of different computers. Most people who use more than one machine have one at work, and one at home. The work machine is for work, the home machine is for personal stuff, and most people who work 9 to 5 aren't allowed to do non-work stuff on the work machine. If they need to work at home, odds are their company issues them laptops, which then obiviates the need for a second machine at home. Even though many users have multiple computers in the house, most of the people in the house only use one machine. You're not going to use your kid's computer to fill out that expense report for work.
Now, with just a couple of hundred developers working on it, Mesh isn't a particularly large effort, especially by Microsoft's standards. But, the Mesh demo app is indicative of the type of app that Jim Allchin railed against in his famous Mac letter to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, way back in 2004.
I am not sure how the company lost sight of what matters to our customers (both business and home) the most, but in my view we lost our way. I think our teams lost sight of what bug-free means, what resilience means, what full scenarios mean, what security means, what performance means, how important current applications are, and really understanding what the most important problems [our] customers face are. I see lots of random features and some great vision, but that doesn't translate onto great products.
Hrmm. Lots of random features with a sprinkling of great vision. That sounds familiar, somehow.