Indexing the Desktop

Microsoft is ultimately the largest threat to Google due to the sheer market dominance of the Windows operating system. Google’s strategy is clear: They are not going to wait for an advanced search technology from Microsoft to become part of the operating system, but will make the desktop part of Google.

Bill Gates has been blathering on about a “Digital Nervous System” for no less than fifteen years. The digital nervous system is the seamless connection and integration of any and all resources needed for research and collaboration. MSN offers a fairly competitive search engine among many other services such as email and news with much success. Oddly enough, Microsoft Windows has a ferociously slow and relatively useless local search that is incapable of actually peeking around in file contents. There is no seamless way to search your entire computer for text that could reside in a Word document or in an email. Cue the latest breed of search engine: Google Desktop.

Google has offered the most dominant search engine on the web for the past few years. The company recently went public with the most successful IPO since the dot com era came to an end. Google offers some of the best advertising on the net through their Ad Words program and they even offer a full set of APIs for developers to integrate google.com features such as web searching and sponsored links into their own sites. On October 14, 2004, Google announced the beta launch of Google Desktop.

“It’s like photographic memory for your computer — if you’ve seen it before, you should be able to find it,” said Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google. For users who are frustrated with losing track of files, this could be the solution.

Industry experts see this is as a direct move to preempt Redmond-based software titan Microsoft who has touted new and advanced search features in their upcoming but often delayed Windows operating system codenamed Longhorn. Analysts and investors suggest that Microsoft is ultimately the largest threat to Google due to the sheer market dominance of the Windows operating system. Google’s strategy is clear: rather than wait for the advanced search to become part of the operating system, they are making the desktop part of Google.

The move by Google is bold and almost seems to have been rushed into public use — it will index your Microsoft Outlook email files, but due to the JavaScript-driven nature of Google’s own Gmail interface, Google Desktop is not capable of indexing emails stored in Gmail.

The Google Desktop application is a small download (400k) that takes only a few seconds to install, though it takes at least two hours to index all the files on your hard drive. Once the initial indexing is completed, however, future indexing is done on an “as needed” basis. Searches are executed quickly and integrated into the main Google interface — when you perform a search on Google it also searches for relevant results on your local machine, or if you so choose, it will search just your desktop, truly blurring the line between the web and the desktop. Take that, Bill!

One of the best features in my opinion is Google Desktop’s ability to index every webpage you visit through Internet Explorer (for now, the application works only in IE) and include those pages in local storage in your search results. What’s more is this: Google Desktop is capable of indexing text contained in many proprietary document formats, including MS Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook data files, as well as Adobe PDF documents. On top of that, the desktop application enables Google to truly personalize your search results by using documents and web pages you have viewed in the past as criterion to evaluate your personal habits.

This is Google’s first attempt at true personalization and if successful, the impact could be huge, particularly for Google’s often disenfranchised competitors. The application even catalogs your previous searches to build up a reference of your personal habits. Even instant messaging conversations and music are searchable.

While all these features sound great, what about privacy? Gmail went through something of a fiasco shortly after its initial launch when people realized they were receiving targeted ads based on the content of email they sent and received. Google has outlined a very clear privacy policy with Google Desktop but does still leave ample wiggle room to allow future incorporation of target ads – Google’s bread butter – into the application – by delivering an even higher relevance for ads to end users than that which is already provided through the Google Ad Words tool.

All in all, Google Desktop provides a much needed boost to usability for the Windows operating system by allowing users to quickly and efficiently search their own computers with the same technology used to search the web through the Google website. After using Google for about four years, I cannot imagine ever bothering to use another search engine again — and after installing Google Desktop, I find it quite unlikely that I will ever use the Windows search tool again.

Microsoft is scared… and if they aren’t, they should be. Google has taken advantage of the fact that they have become the de facto standard for finding anything imaginable on the web and applied that to the desktop.

So what is this really about? One word — advertising. The web and email have become quagmires of useless advertising and spam. Any website that can deliver effective, targeted advertising to a broad user base is bound to succeed, no questions asked.

Google has managed to cultivate a successful advertising program known as Google Ad Words where advertisers pay per click for ranking on keywords. The cost per click is dependent solely on the competition for those keywords – it is essentially an auction and the top few will make it to the first page of search results on google.com for searches on the keywords they have paid for. Companies pay premiums for some keywords, up to five dollars per click, due simply to the huge market share available to advertisers who can reach an audience through Google.

Microsoft and Yahoo! have been engaged in search engine wars for the past year or two and as it stands, Google is dominating them handily, particularly in its ability to deliver unprecedented accuracy with its search results and, more importantly, its ad targeting.

The obvious result of such an effective advertising program is an incredible inflow of money. Google is notoriously defensive of its privacy and no one outside the company really knows how many servers they have or how many new products are in the pipe, but the products and services that are currently offered by Google are money making machines, pure and simple.

Bringing your personal computer contents — instant messaging dialogs and email in particular — allows Google to effectively model your interests in such a way that they can deliver ads that you will in all likelihood look into. This is most important to businesses who actually sell products online. E-commerce is a multi-billion dollar industry, and companies fight tooth and nail for ad placement to sell their products. Google has created a hyper-competitive environment within which the most creative and efficient e-commerce shops can thrive, and because of that Google is thriving.

If Google is able to continue increasing its revenue by powering up Ad Words and creating new ways to sell their services (such as the Google Search Appliance and Google Answers), it can continue to fund its seemingly endless stream of innovations. More importantly, Google can continue to dominate the search engine wars and continue to position Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, under its thumb.

A day will come where Google is as big, or bigger, perhaps, as Microsoft. Microsoft became the behemoth it is by innovation. Google is on the path to duplicate that level of success. While it is not likely at all that Google will take on the Windows operating system itself or other unrelated applications, it is highly likely that Google will continue its assault on all things web and email, and at one point become so potent in the marketplace that Microsoft is forced to ally with Google and deliver its products along with Windows.

Internet Explorer is at the end of its lifecycle, and Outlook is bloated with useless buggy features. Windows search is also useless and MSN search is only slightly better. Rumors of a Google browser have been around a while and though they have been neither confirmed nor denied, it seems likely that Google is developing the next generation of web browsers.

Google knows the guts of a web page better than any other company out there. It is only logical that the company will continue the desktop push, and with a foot in the door with Google Desktop and unlimited advertising revenue, Google is the next big contender for your desktop.

There is more than a little bit of irony that up until the release of Google Desktop, it has been faster to search a few billion Internet documents than to search your own hard drive. It’s fair to say that so long as Google continues to one-up their competitors, everyone who was able to get in on the aforementioned IPO will remain quite happy.

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