April 23, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft is preparing to take its most ambitious step yet in transforming its personal computer business into one tied more closely to software running in remote data centers.
The software giant announced on Tuesday a data storage and Web software system, called Live Mesh, that is intended to blur the distinction between software running on the Windows operating system and an elaborate array of services that will be delivered to a growing collection of electronic gadgets. Live Mesh is Microsoft’s late entry into a rapidly growing market described as cloud computing. The term refers to the movement of software applications and services from PCs to centralized data centers, where they are made available via the Internet. Companies like Amazon.com, Google, Salesforce and dozens of others are building computing centers that will effectively outsource data processing and make it a commodity that companies purchase as they would electricity.
The introduction of Live Mesh is a significant strategic shift for Microsoft, whose operating system helped popularize personal computers. Bill Gates, the company’s co-founder, chairman and chief architect, said in an interview on CNN a year ago, “We’re making the PC the place where it all comes together.”
However, a strategy document circulated to company employees on Tuesday that was written by Ray Ozzie, one of the Microsoft’s two chief technology officers, countered that view.
“The Web is the hub of our social mesh and our device mesh,” he wrote. That statement is the first of a set of three “guiding principles” that Mr. Ozzie outlined in the five-page document entitled “Services Strategy Update.” In taking the PC off center stage, Microsoft is refocusing some of its resources to catch its cloud computing rivals.
“This is a pretty significant public statement that the battle is really a cloud battle,” said Mark Stahlman, a research vice president at Gartner, an industry consulting group. “It’s not an ad search battle or a desktop operating system battle. Those are fought and won already. This is the one that’s wide open.”
Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, a company that began by offering software that managed customer relations through a Web browser, said Microsoft’s entry “means that the Internet is the center of the world.” Salesforce has more recently begun broadening its product line to a wide range of computing services, also available through a browser. “Consumer services have shown us the way to the next generation of computing,” Mr. Benioff said.
Microsoft refers to its strategy as “software plus services.” However, the new vision is built on Web-based software that will help deliver entertainment as well as business software to devices like Microsoft’s Xbox game console, to Zune music player, to cellphones running Windows Mobile software, even to Apple’s Mac computers and other consumer devices in the home.
The company now believes that no single device will dominate the Web-oriented consumer electronic world of the future. Underscoring that belief, Live Mesh’s logo is a Tolkienesque graphical ring intended to give the user a visual sense that all the devices are interconnected.
Displayed within a Web browser, the Live Desktop page will not be so much a Web-based operating system, said Jeff Hansen, general manager of Microsoft’s Live Services group, but a control mechanism that blurs the location of documents ranging from MP3 and video files to spreadsheets and text documents.
“We’re adopting a wider and wider diversity of increasingly powerful devices,” Mr. Hansen said.
The Live Mesh system, however, is viewed by the company as a software platform in the data center for an evolving array of services, ranging from remote control of computers and electronic devices to data storage. Microsoft also hopes that software and service developers will create applications based on the service.
In the plan outlined by Mr. Ozzie, he refers to the power of choice for customers and acknowledges that software development will be based on “small pieces loosely coupled.” Both of those concepts echo industry buzzwords in the open-source Web development community that has grown outside of Microsoft during the last half decade.
In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Hansen said that the current version of Live Mesh was a “technology preview” that would be available only to a group of about 10,000 test users and software developers. “We want to engage the Web community and software developers,” he said.
On Tuesday evening Microsoft described 15 components of the new Live Mesh service, including a notification feature, a news feature and an information window displayed by the service, but only two user-oriented applications. One synchronizes files on multiple computers. The other, Live Mesh Remote Desktop, is a free software service that will permit users to control computers and other devices over the Internet.
Mr. Hansen, who has been using Live Mesh in a private Microsoft test, said he was able to surprise his wife using the Live Mesh Remote Desktop. From work, he was able to start a song playing on his Xbox at home.
Microsoft said it would begin a public test later this year. The basic service, which will be available initially on devices running Windows XP and Mobile, will later support Mac computers and other mobile devices. Five gigabytes of free data storage will be included, but the company declined to speculate about charges for additional features and services.