Microsoft this week opened the prerelease version of its Live Mesh cloud computing service to the US public for the first time, allowing in a much wider audience. Previously, the service--which provides file synchronization across PCs, devices, and a Web desktop, as well as remote PC access functionality--was available only to a limited test audience.

Under the Live Mesh paradigm, users create a "mesh" of interconnected devices, including PCs, Macs, various mobile devices, and a Web-based desktop. (In the current prerelease version, only PCs and the Web desktop are enabled.) You can synchronize folders (and their contents) between all of these devices, providing you with anytime-anywhere access to your data. Live Mesh also provides PC remote control functionality, so you can use your PC when away from home, for example, over the Internet.

What differentiates Live Mesh from similar services, primarily, is that it is really the foundation for what will eventually be a wide-ranging cloud computing platform that Microsoft feels could someday rival Windows. In October, at its PDC developer event, the software giant will unveil the interfaces and tools that developers need to write their own Live Mesh-based applications and services. And the company says that it will expand the services it offers via Live Mesh over time.

Since its limited initial release in April, Microsoft has bolstered Live Mesh in only a few small ways. For example, the company is adding a P2P mode to the service so that users can sync unlimited amounts of data from PC-to-PC, bypassing the Web desktop and its more limited storage space (5 GB in the beta). But as a free service, Live Mesh is impressive even in its current incarnation. You can read my lengthy Live Mesh preview at the URL below for more information.

Some reports have mistakenly compared Live Mesh to Apple's lackluster and buggy MobileMe service. In fact, the two services have little in common beyond the cloud computing marketing umbrella they both employ: MobileMe is designed as a central clearing house for PIM and email data, designed mostly for the iPhone, while Live Mesh is a complete platform that is currently oriented around storage synchronization. Put another way, it will soon be possible for developers to build numerous MobileMe-type services on top of Live Mesh, but the reverse is not true.

To sign up for the Live Mesh tech preview, please visit the Live Mesh Web site.

Related: Live Mesh Preview