2 min read

Goo goo over Google

This seems to be the breakout year for desktop search tools, a field we once pioneered

If 2005 has been the year of anything in personal computing terms, we might as well call it the year of desktop search. In March, Google Inc. officially launched its Desktop Search product, previously available in beta form. In April, Apple Computer Inc. shipped OS X Tiger, which comes with a built-in desktop search tool called Spotlight. May brought MSN Desktop Search Tool from Microsoft Corp., followed in June by a new MSN Search toolbar incorporating new desktop capabilities.
Ask Jeeves Inc., Lycos Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. all have their own desktop search tools. In fact all of these are relative newcomers to a field where independent makers of desktop search software — Canada’s own Copernic Technologies Inc. of Sainte Foy, Que., X1 Technologies Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., San Francisco-based Blinkx, and others — have laboured for years.
Desktop search tools go back at least to the mid-1980s, when Lotus Development Corp. introduced software called Magellan. Lotus later dropped Magellan — it wasn’t a big enough money-maker for the company that developed 1-2-3 and Notes — but the category never really went away.
What’s new this year is the wholesale arrival of the big Web-search players in this space. Why? Advertising opportunities and mind share.
Google and Yahoo! built their success on delivering targeted advertising based on what people search for online. They hope they can deliver more ads by tying them to what people search for on their own desktops. But also, the leaders in Web search want a desktop presence because they fear that without it they might lose Web-search traffic to competitors.
That makes sense. If I have a desktop search tool on my PC, I am likely to use it to search for something that might be on my hard disk, and then — possibly not having found what I was looking for, or possibly wanting more information — extend the search to the Web. So if Google can search my desktop for me, I’m probably not going to switch to Yahoo! or MSN Search to go out to the Web.
“It really is an avenue into the Web search product,” says Dave Goebel, founder and president of Goebel Group, a consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in search technology.
Another reason for the surge in activity might be that the need for desktop search is growing. Windows has a rudimentary search capability, but while adequate for locating files by name, it’s hopelessly slow for locating files based on content — especially now that we’re used to engines like Google that search the whole Web in seconds.
Hard disks keep growing, so most computer users rarely delete anything, which turns our hard drives into enormous haystacks in which particular needles of information are nearly impossible to find unaided.
But while Yahoo! and the other Web-search firms are enthusiastically pursuing desktop search, one has to wonder how long there will be a niche. To see why, look at Apple’s Spotlight. It’s built into the operating system. Microsoft hasn’t quite done that yet, but now that the company has a desktop search tool, it’s only a matter of time — in fact, the upcoming Windows Vista is expected to incorporate search capabilities much as OS X Tiger does with Spotlight today. Desktop search will go from a hot application to a standard part of the operating system pretty quickly.