Google preps desktop search application

Google made a much anticipated move toward what many consider the newest frontier in the digital information search sector by announcing Thursday it is offering a test version of an application designed to let users search for information stored on their desktop computers.

Google Desktop Search will let users search for information stored in their PC files, local e-mail inboxes, archived chat sessions and list of Web sites visited, Google said.

Considerable progress has been made in recent years in Internet search, as sites from companies such as Google, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo improved their technology to index more content and deliver more relevant results. But finding information in users' desktop PCs has been a problem, as tools to do this have been scarce and inefficient. Providing better desktop search tools has been identified recently as a priority by a variety of players, including Google and Microsoft.

"I think between now and the end of the year, we'll see things really heat up at Microsoft in this space, around everything having to do with search. I have a feeling they'll come on really strong in this fourth quarter, which will make it a real dogfight. This will without question accelerate Microsoft's timetable," said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst.

Although there are companies that already provide desktop search tools, Google now rises to the top of the pile by virtue of the volume of users it commands, Weiner said. "You have to put Google in the lead by sheer numbers. Their position in the marketplace puts them ahead by default because of the number of users they have."

This is a good, although not earth-shattering, first step for Google in the desktop search area, Weiner said. Ultimately, the goal in search is to provide a seamless experience for users across the variety of content tanks that exist, of which the desktop is one, and that is what will determine the success of companies in this space, he said. "It's all about integration and usability," he said.

Google Desktop Search can be downloaded for free from http://www.desktop.google.com/. The application can search for information stored in users' Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail applications from Microsoft, in Microsoft Office files from applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, in the list of visited Web sites kept in Microsoft's Internet Explorer and across stored instant message chat sessions from America Online's AIM service.

Google Desktop Search is also integrated with the Google.com Internet search engine, so that queries run through Google.com are also run simultaneously in a user's Google Desktop Search application. Results from Google Desktop Search are added to the Google.com results.

However, for the sake of privacy, the desktop results aren't made available to Google.com without the user's permission, said Google. Users can also configure Google Desktop Search to search certain files and not others.

Google Desktop Search has been designed to refresh its index of local desktop files continuously, instead of for example once every day, so that it can search e-mail messages seconds after they are received and files seconds after they are created, Google said.

This real-time indexing capability extends to Web pages a user visits and AIM chats he conducts, so that Google Desktop Search can capture these pages and AIM chats on the fly. Thus, after it has indexed searchable files on the hard drive, it is no longer dependent on IE's history folder for visited Web sites or on previously saved AIM chats.

"Users don't really have an understanding any longer about what's on their hard drive and what's on the network," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. They remember a piece of information but often they can't recall whether they saw it in a Word document, a Web page, an e-mail message or an AIM chat, she said.

"To the degree those distinctions are being blurred, users can remember what they have seen on their computer screen. So we shifted the focus of our product away from classic hard drive search to being able to search everything you've seen," she said. "Google Desktop aims to be a photographic memory for your computer. The theory is: if you've seen it on your screen, you should be able to search for it and find it again quickly."

In this way, Google Desktop will in fact index e-mail messages a user views from his Web mail account, even when those messages aren't physically stored in the user's hard drive, Mayer said. While Web mail services from competitors Yahoo and Microsoft are supported in this fashion by Google Desktop, Google's own Web mail service Gmail ironically is currently off limits. The problem? Gmail's extensive and sophisticated use of JavaScript, Mayer said.

"It's a bit too advanced for what Desktop Search does. We're working to fix that," she said. "We can handle pages that have small amounts of JavaScript, which is the case for most pages on the Web. But Gmail uses JavaScript in an entirely new, bleeding edge way." There is no specific timetable for adding Gmail support, other than "in the near future," she said.

Lack of support for Gmail isn't a terrible oversight at this point, Gartner's Weiner said. "Gmail is a funny thing. It seems to be one of those projects in perpetual beta. If you're talking about enterprise corporate users, Google is being smart by not being self-serving and going after where the mail is. It's not in Gmail at this point. It's in other clients."

Google Desktop Search can be configured very granularly, so users can instruct the application, for example, to index all visited Web pages, none at all or all with the exception of those belonging to a specific URL (uniform resource locator) domain, she said. Likewise, users can instruct the application to not index AIM chats and to also leave out of the index certain parts of their hard drive, Mayer said.

Google Desktop Search can find multimedia and PDF (Portable Document Format) files based on their file names, she said. It doesn't currently search the metadata of multimedia files, such as images, MP3s and video clips, nor does it index the full text of PDF files, she said. That support is expected to be added in the future, along with the ability to index IM chats from services other than AIM, she said.

When a user only searches his desktop using the application, no sponsored search ads are served up, she said. However, when the user searches both his desktop and the Internet, the results from both searches are combined and sponsored ads accompany the query results, she said. However, no information from the user's desktop is transmitted to Google; the ads are triggered only by the query term or terms, she said.

As a beta product, Google Desktop Search stands to be refined, changed and tweaked. "We're not sure we have the feature set right or the utility of the application right," she said. "We want to release the product, get user feedback, see how they use it and fine-tune it and make sure we have the product right." Once that happens, Google may add more revenue-generating features to the product, she said.

Google Desktop Search is available now for Windows XP and Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above. It is available in English now, and there are plans to support other languages in the future.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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