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Friday, October 15, 2004 - Page updated at 08:30 A.M.
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Google adds muscle to desktops with new search tool

By Kim Peterson
Seattle Times technology reporter

MARY ALTAFFER / AP
Computers displaying the Google Desktop Search tool are on display at the Digitallife show in New York City yesterday.
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Google's fast new tool eats Windows' leisurely lunch
In its most competitive blow to Microsoft yet, Google yesterday launched a test version of software that allows users to go beyond the Internet and search files stored in their computers.

As if that weren't enough to irk Redmond, Google said that most of the files it can now search are associated with Microsoft programs. Called Google Desktop Search, it can find e-mail in Microsoft Outlook and files created in Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs. It can also search recent Web sites a person has viewed in Internet Explorer.

The ability to search quickly through a computer's files has been long desired in personal computing software. Microsoft already offers desktop search in its Windows operating system, but those searches can be slow and cumbersome.

Microsoft said for the first time yesterday that a test version of a souped-up desktop search would be available by the end of the year.

America Online also plans to have desktop search out later this year along with a new Web browser that runs on Internet Explorer technology. Yahoo! is also thought to have its own desktop search product in development.

Google's announcement comes after Microsoft delayed the release of a storage system called WinFS that could search everything from e-mail addresses to the technical files hidden deep in the guts of a computer system. Microsoft originally planned to include WinFS in its next operating system, code-named Longhorn, but said last August that WinFS wouldn't be ready in time for Longhorn's release in 2006.

Google, which runs the Web's most popular search engine, is the first out of the gate with its beta product. The software is free, but Google said it will collect some non-personal usage data, such as the number of searches performed.

Users who download the software can search their computer and the Web at the same time, and the desktop files appear at the top of the results page.

Anticipating privacy concerns that might be raised from searching computer hard drives, Google emphasized yesterday that users can specify the types of files that are off-limits. A person could set the software to search only e-mail or Microsoft Excel files, for example, or tell Google not to collect usage data and crash reports.

FACTS

Branching out


New release: Google is testing software that can search files stored on a personal computer. Known as Google Desktop Search, but code-named "Total Recall" internally, the software can search computer files faster than Google searches Web pages, the company said.

The fine print: Available at desktop.google.com. It works on PCs with Windows XP and Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 and above. It doesn't work with Linux or the Mac OS.

What's searchable: Can search files of the following types: Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, AOL Instant Messenger chats and Web pages recently viewed by Internet Explorer. The software doesn't search through Google's own e-mail system, known as Gmail.

A user could also hit a virtual snooze bar and tell Google to start a 15-minute countdown in which it would not record the Web sites a user visits.

"This product puts us in proximity to the most personal data Google has ever encountered," said Marissa Mayer, director of Google's consumer Web products. "We've been aware of that from the beginning."

Microsoft had little to say yesterday about the news that a rival could search Windows-based computers more efficiently than its own products could. The company released a statement saying that the industry has only scratched the surface on search technology.

"Our focus is on helping consumers get faster, cleaner and easier access to the information they want, not what other companies are doing," the statement said.

But Microsoft should be concerned, analysts said. Google is trying to drive more search and informational services from the computer desktop to the Web, said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox.

"It's a real blurring of the divide between the information that's on your desktop and the information that's on the Internet," he said. "That's a dramatic change in how people view the PC."

A number of free desktop search programs already exist, but they aren't widely used, said David Thede, president of dtSearch, a Bethesda, Md.-based company that sells corporate desktop and network search software.

"There's a long history of underused find-your-stuff-fast tools in Windows and Microsoft Office," he said. "None of them are great, all of them are good enough and people hardly use them."

The main reason they aren't that popular, he said, is because users don't want to learn a new software program just to find their own items. It's hard to develop thorough, full-text search programs because of the complexities involved, such as handling different file formats and deciphering encrypted or compressed files, he said.

"To do a good enough desktop search that kind of skims the surface of what someone might find, that's not terribly difficult," he said.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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