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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

How Microsoft is quietly leaving its past behind

Since starting my new job over three months ago, I’ve been too busy to write anything here. I’m not complaining; I’m really happy to have this job and the opportunity it gives me to make “computing” better for people at large. Thanks to Canada Day’s being on a Tuesday this year, I and many of my colleagues are taking Monday as a vacation day to create a four-day weekend, so here I am, writing again.

I put “computing” in quotes because these days it’s harder than ever to know what to call it. I like that people often use phrases like “being on the Internet” and “going online”. Sure, you can use a computer without being connected to anything or anyone else, but the range of what you can do is so much more limited.

I sometimes talk about “personal computing” as a period of temporary insanity. (Apparently I haven’t written that in a blog post before now, although I did write it a couple of years ago in reply to a comment here.) We’re recovering from it now, and I find Microsoft’s way of dealing with the shift to be quite fascinating. Microsoft stands to lose more than anyone else, but isn’t silly enough to pretend that that things aren’t changing. Its response, Live Mesh, takes Microsoft into the new era, but in an old-fashioned way. Let me explain what I mean...

There doesn’t seem to be a generally accepted term for the emerging new way of using computers. Out there in “the cloud” of the Internet there are servers that have all kinds of applications, data, storage space, you name it. Meanwhile people use various devices, such as PCs and cellphones, that can connect to the Internet and therefore to all those services as well as to each other. What is now available to us is the powerful combination of all of these elements working together.

The advent of PCs is why Microsoft was founded, and selling software to run on those PCs is still how it largely makes its money. As things evolve, however, the need for that software is disappearing: using a PC operating system other than Windows no longer causes much difficulty to the user (I now use Mac OS at work, and not long ago I wouldn’t have been willing to), and even though I have Microsoft Office at both home and work I rarely use it any more since I’d rather use server-based systems such as wikis. To me, a device is just a way of getting at my “stuff” – which I really don’t want to be stored on a device that might get lost or stolen, or whose hard drive might (will, someday) fail, or might get screwed up by the actions of its owner (me) or by all those software updates that I don’t understand and just hope will work as they’re supposed to.

UPDATE: Somehow I forgot to mention this when I wrote this post yesterday: the other problem with being device-centric is that a lot of things aren’t generated by you on your devices. Like all the emails that people send you! And the instant messages, and all the news you read on the Web, etc., etc.

Well, the way that Microsoft describes Live Mesh is very device-centric, and the word “mesh” seems that way to me as well, even though as far as I can tell it is a comprehensive system that could be a solid platform for the future. “Devices are how we interact in this new ‘web connected’ world”, says the Introducing Live Mesh blog post; “however, ... it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the people, information and applications we depend on in sync”. The result is a focus on synchronizing devices with each other. But how is this actually done? By synchronizing them with “folders” – that happen to be stored on a server, not on any of your devices. In fact, “Live Desktop enables you to easily access your mesh anytime, anywhere, using only a Web browser.” You don’t actually need to use any of your own devices; any Web browser anywhere will do.

Even at Microsoft, the device is becoming just an access point to where things really live, out there in the cloud. It’s just that Microsoft doesn’t want to admit it.


Blogger mrG said...

In 1999, while in Raleigh NC for the last of the RedHat Linux Expos, after listening to me talk about ubiquitous network computing all weekend, the senior publisher for Macmillan's tech titles had an epiphany moment. "So what you're saying is that I could use my desktop, or my laptop, or my PDA or my phone or even my fridge, and all of these would just be windows into my data-world?"

"Well Michael, that's almost right," I said. "You could do all that, but you could also show up here in Raleigh and ask the hotel desk clerk for a house-PDA and still have complete access to all your personal information space, and what's more, you could just borrow mine."

Hmmm ... guess that means my vision has slipped to being only 9 years ahead of microsoft, eh? :)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 3:32:00 p.m. EDT  

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