Live Mesh; it’s here now, it’s useful and it’s free

Live Mesh is real cloud computing available now and free – not vague promises for the future. Office Watch has a primer on using it now.

Live Mesh is Microsoft’s file sharing ‘cloud’ technology. The ‘technical preview’ is currently available to people in some countries for free so you can give it a try – we’ve been doing just that for several months.

We don’t just like Live Mesh, it’s become a indispensible part of our daily computing.

This week at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference we’ll hear a lot about ‘cloud computing’ with initiatives like Azure. Those new products will roll out in the years ahead with grand visions.

Live Mesh isn’t a vague vision, it’s available now, for free to most people.

In this article we’ll give a practical overview of Live Mesh in its current form. Later articles will look at a very practical use of Live Mesh, how you can use it with Microsoft Office documents and the future possibilities it entails.

Keep in mind that Live Mesh is very much in development – new and changed features are appearing with each update from the active development team.

The Live Mesh team seem like an eager and responsive bunch, much like the nice folks who work on Microsoft OneNote. Good ideas are implemented without the bureaucracy and second-guessing that bogs down many parts of Microsoft.

What is it?

In its current form, Live Mesh is a way to share files automatically between computers as well as make them available from any web browser where you can login. All this is done, at present, by synchronizing with ‘the cloud’, called the Live Desktop.

You can also remotely access a computer that’s been linked to your Live Mesh account. This can be done to any internet linked computer that you’ve authorised ahead of time and works without any problems of firewalls, static IP addresses or any other technical hassles.

At the moment you can add files or folders to your Live Mesh account then choose which other devices can access those files or synchronize them to local storage.

That its current form – however that’s just a small part of the possibilities of Live Mesh. More on that later.


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What’s in the cloud?

The cloud is one of those recent buzzwords you’ve probably seen in the computer press – if you use Live Mesh then you’ll quickly understand the concept of the cloud.

A cloud is online storage that can be accessed (with permission) from anywhere on the Internet. You don’t know where the files or data you save to a cloud are actually stored – all you need to know is how to get to them when you need them. Like any files, more than one person can access the same information, different people can have different levels of access (full, limited editing, read-only etc).

In a fully cloud enabled world, all your information would be stored in a cloud so you can get to it in any way and with any device that suits you at that time. In practice, you’ll store some of your data in a cloud but most of your data will be kept on devices you physically control.

We’ve been using cloud technologies for some years – just not with the cloud name – photo-sharing services like Flickr or Picasa are specialised cloud systems designed for pictures. You can upload images to, say, Picasa though you don’t know nor care where the servers are located. As owner of the images you can choose who can view or even edit your files through logins and permissions. People can view your images from any web browser or, if you’ve given them access, download pictures to another computer.

Live Mesh is a more open version of the same concept. Instead of just images, Live Mesh will work with most files (there are some limits) and nominated files are synchronised – changes to the file in one place get automatically copied to anywhere else that file is located.

Install

Live Mesh software is currently only available for Windows XP and Vista with mobile device and Mac support promised in the future. We’ve run Live Mesh on Windows 2008 Server running as a workstation or Windows Server 2003.

Go to mesh.com to get the necessary software. Live Mesh also requires a Windows Live login – which is free if you don’t already have one. You’ll need to install it on one computer but the main benefits come when installed on several computers (eg desktop and laptop).

Once you have computers setup with Live Mesh, those computers or nominated files can be accessed from anywhere on the Internet, via a network connection and a supported browser.

The installation is quite simple and integrates into Windows Explorer. This tight integration means that software updates can be a little disruptive requires many programs to be shut-down during the update (we wish there was an option to update on next logoff or re-start).


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File Sharing

Once Live Mesh is installed and you have a Windows Live login – the fun begins.

Pick a small folder on your computer, right-click on it and choose ‘Add Folder to your Live Mesh':

Live Mesh - add folder menu choice image from Live Mesh; it

Note: Live Mesh currently works on a ‘per folder’ basis only but finer selection criteria (‘per file’ ‘new files’ ‘files less than nnMB’ etc are promised and may be available by the time you read this.

The default will be to synchronise the folder with the ‘Live Desktop’ which is Microsoft’s name for the online ‘cloud’ storage. Under ‘Synchronisation Options’ you can see other devices linked to your account and can choose to automatically copy files from one device to another via the cloud storage.

The online storage is a generous 5GB – enough for most people.

Down in the system tray you’ll see a blue Live Mesh icon, click on it to see the Notifier. The Notifier tells you what Live Mesh is doing and the overall status. The ‘News’ section tells you what file uploads and download have taken place.

Live Mesh - notifier display image from Live Mesh; it

Adding a device to your account is simple. On that computer, go to mesh.com, login with your Windows Live ID then click on ‘Add Device’. This will install the Live Mesh software with the same Windows Live account and it’ll then appear on the device list.

Online access

Any files saved to the Live Desktop can be accessed from any Internet linked computer with a modern browser (currently IE 6 or later, Firefox 2 or later and Safari 3 or above).

Go to mesh.com, login with your Windows Live ID then your devices and Live Desktop will show up.

Any synced folders will appear on the Live Desktop view, click on the folders to open them. The online preview is focused on music and images for the moment.

There’s no way to preview an Office document on the Live Desktop – you have to open the file on the hosting computer which means you need a copy of MS Office or some compatible program to be installed.


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Remote Access

Live Mesh includes a nifty implementation of Microsoft’s long-standing Remote Desktop technology.

Using this you can remotely access a computer from anywhere – the full screen will appear and you can work on the computer just as if you where sitting in front of it.

Naturally the remote computer has to be turned on, not sleeping or hibernating. Live Mesh is good at getting past most firewalls and blocks (in tech terms it uses port 80 for all communications) which normally make remote access such a nightmare.

Of course, you can’t access just any computer. The remote computer needs Live Mesh software installed, the device needs to be linked to your Windows Live ID and you need the login name and password for that computer.

Uses for Live Mesh

At its most basic, Live Mesh gives you a form of automatic backup.

When travelling, I save all photos into a folder that’s setup with Live Mesh. When I’ve connected to the net, all my new photos are uploaded and saved to my online storage automatically in the background. I don’t have to do anything extra, it just happens. Viewing access to those photos could be given to friends and family interested in your sojourns.

You can do the same for documents, especially any that you are working on. With Live Mesh you can access the document from anywhere and work on it with changes saved back to the cloud. For anyone sharing documents between office and home, Live Mesh could be a real boon.

Live Mesh also allows a limited form of collaboration. Put a file in your Live Mesh account and grant permission to another person to view or edit the file. Each person can edit the file until everyone is happy and it’s more flexible than a document ’round robin’ by email. But Live Mesh is no substitute for Sharepoint – there’s no check in/out control nor versioning. File conflicts (where two people have edited the same version of the document) are only alerted for the owner to resolve manually.

We’ll talk more about using Live Mesh with Microsoft Office in a future article.

Live Mesh blocks the use of some files. Most notably for Office users the banned list includes PST files – the main storage file for Outlook. Most PST files are too large to be practically stored in a Live Mesh cloud anyway and any small change to Outlook (a single message added, deleted or moved) means the entire file has to be synced again. I know some people want a way to share their PST file between computers, but Live Mesh isn’t the answer. There are workarounds to bypass the PST block in Live Mesh and while they are technically clever, it’s not recommended.

Remote Access means you can use your powerful home or office computer from wherever you are.  When travelling, or just visiting a friend you can login to your main computer and use it just as if you’d brought it with you.  Even if you have a laptop, remote access means you can make use of a more powerful desktop computer when necessary.


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Privacy

There are understandable privacy concerns with all this. While those concerns are legitimate and haven’t been properly addressed by Microsoft, the benefits of Live Mesh are undeniable.

However unlikely it might be, it’s possible for Microsoft or staff to access any files stored in the Live Mesh system. The main defence is the sheer size of the online storage and the slim chance of someone getting to your files among millions.

As we’ve noted many times before, Microsoft could receive a court order to make your online files available to some law enforcement body. While such an order is unlikely, the sad fact is that a court which would be unwilling to permit physical access to your home or office might be less worried about getting the same information from some anonymous server. We suspect there are untested legal areas related to cloud computing, such as jurisdiction. For example, if a New Zealand citizen is a Chilean resident but working in Japan and stores files on Live Desktop while visiting Italy – which court has the right to issue an order to get those files? Add the complication that the Live Desktop storage servers could be anywhere in the world and probably change from time to time. I smell lots of billable hours just waiting to be racked up.

The bottom line is that Live Mesh, it’s competitors and successors can be very useful, but keep in mind the privacy problems that could arise with any form of online data storage. Storing vacation photos and favourite music is one thing, keeping personal and private information is quite another.

 

Live Mesh is a good example of what cloud computing is capable of right now. Instead of vague promises for years to come, you can use it now for practical purposes. Give it a try and let us know what you discover.