Microsoft Officially Updates Desktop Search

Microsoft’s desktop search tool is finally out of beta. Has it improved enough to be real competition for Google and Yahoo’s desktop search tools? And why has desktop search turned into a battleground anyway?

Google may have been the first search engine company to launch a desktop search tool, but the others were not very far behind. Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves, and even Microsoft climbed aboard the bandwagon. The irony of Microsoft creating a downloadable desktop search tool was rich, since one of the reasons these other tools have been catching on is because the search tool included with Microsoft’s operating system leaves many users dissatisfied.

Now, after several months in beta, Microsoft finally upgraded its desktop search. The free download is available from http://desktop.msn.com/. Microsoft changed the name of the software, from MSN’s Toolbar Suite to the wordier MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search. The upgrade addresses some of the criticisms of the beta made by analysts and observers, and ignores others.

For example, one reviewer of the beta program complained that it lacked a preview window. Apparently he wasn’t the only one annoyed by this, because Microsoft added the ability to preview documents to this release. This should make it easier for a user to find exactly the document they want, so long as previewing the document is quicker than clicking on the file to check the whole thing.

Not surprisingly, one area of criticism that Microsoft ignored was interoperability. Going to the URL mentioned above, it clearly states that the software “Requires Microsoft Windows XP/Server 2003/2000 & Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.01 or later.” If you are using Apple’s OS X or, heaven forbid, Linux, you are out of luck. (Well, not entirely; Apple recently released Tiger, an operating system with a reportedly excellent search function called Spotlight).

Not only does the software not work with different operating systems; it does not work with different browsers. While it’s true that most people using a Microsoft operating system have the IE Web browser, it is a shame that the software giant is ignoring the small but growing number of people who prefer to use alternative browsers. Opera fans are left singing the blues, and Firefox users are stopped in their tracks if they want this free software to work with their preferred browser.

MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search offers not just one, but three toolbars to help users find their stuff. They work from three different areas: Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer; Outlook; and the desktop. The toolbar lets you perform a keyword search, very much as you would do when you search the Web. As you would expect, the toolbar manages to achieve tighter integration with these programs than any of Microsoft’s competitors in this area.

The aforementioned Preview feature seems to be very simple to use. Click on a search result, and a preview of the item appears on the right hand side of the screen. This can be very useful when a particular search returns a plethora of results.

Microsoft is particularly proud of the number of different types of documents this software is able to search –- Word files, Excel files, and about 200 more. If that doesn’t provide you with enough variety, you can visit http://addins.msn.com/. At this site, you will find add-ins that you can download to extend the software’s ability to search different file types. For example, if you want to be able to search PDF files, you can download an add-in provided by Adobe.

One interesting point that might give it an advantage over its competitors is that the MSN Search Toolbar is not just a search toolbar. Along with the toolbar, you receive a pop-up blocker, one-click access to various MSN services, and automatic form fill.
The latter feature in particular could be a real time saver if you ever get frustrated with filling out long forms online. The toolbar lets you save address, sign-in, and credit card information, and fills out Web forms for you. It also manages your passwords. The personal information you enter into this feature, in turn, is protected by another password that you create.

There is one point worth noting about the one-click access to MSN services. While you can access them from the toolbar, you can’t search documents stored on Microsoft’s servers –- leaving Hotmail users out in the cold, for example. This puts Microsoft’s tool at a disadvantage to Yahoo’s tool, which has just started to search server-based information (or will be starting to do so soon).

On the other hand, Microsoft’s search tool has gained a certain degree of customizability and ease of use. The upgrade gives users somewhat greater control over what items on their desktop the software indexes; this is particularly useful for those who have sensitive documents on their computers or who share their computer with multiple users. Wizard-like setup tools make it easy to install the software on a computer. Overall, the search tool is said to be a solid performer.

Typically, a user isn’t going to download a bunch of different desktop search tools, try them all out, and then go with whichever one works best. Gartner analyst Allen Weiner observed that trying out desktop search tools requires considerably more effort than trying out online services. To use a tool, consumers must download and install the software, and spend some time learning how to use it. Each tool also takes a certain amount of time to index the user’s hard drive.
 
Even if a user wanted to do this kind of shopping around (for free software, mind you), it might not be possible. Not all desktop tools work and play well with their competitors. According to Weiner, “It’s not a market consumers will fiddle around with. People will select one and live with it.”
 
Why does this matter? Keep in mind that the desktop search tools all come from companies with Internet search engines. All of the desktop search tools also have the capability to search the Web. So a user’s desktop search preference will dictate what engine they use for Web searches –- and Web searching has proven to be a surprisingly lucrative field over the years.

Let’s take this one step further. Remember that Yahoo is beginning to include the ability to do server-side searching with its tool, so users can, for instance, search their Yahoo!Mail accounts. Microsoft tried to bundle the desktop and the Internet together by bundling its browser with its operating system –- but search engines might have a better chance to do that now, because they offer so many services that go beyond search. Even Google, stretching the “search everything” theme, offers Gmail, its own email accounts. As many communications companies have found, the more items you can bundle together (such as, in that case, phone, cable TV, and Internet service), the more likely you are to keep a customer tied to your services.

It’s hard to say how lucrative that model might be when all of the services being bundled together are actually free. But you can be certain that Microsoft has taken this into consideration, as well as Yahoo. Google already offers Gmail users the ability to search their email; it’s an integral part of the service. If this is not yet integrated into Google’s desktop tool, I would not be surprised to see that happen sometime within the next year.

In short, this matters because it’s part of the battle to be all things to all computer and Internet users –- and it’s still anybody’s guess who will win.

Microsoft isn’t finished with adding features to its desktop search tool by any means. In a few months, the software giant plans to add tabbed browsing functionality. It will organize individual searches as tabs. This could be useful if you find yourself performing the same searches over and over again, or if you are working on a report or document and need to perform several different but related searches to get the information required.
 
Another new item to look for from Microsoft is a desktop search tool for the workplace. The beta version of this tool will supposedly be available by the end of this year. So far, there is no word as to how this version of the search tool will be different from the current version. Possibly it will include more security-related features or allow administrators to more tightly control the sorts of searches that users can perform with the tool.

It’s possible also that the growing popularity of alternative browsers and Web services may force a certain amount of interoperability on the tools –- or that third parties will come in to fill the gap. Firefox, remember, currently has not quite seven percent of the browser market, and that percentage has been growing steadily –- some might even say explosively. Its usage is highest among tech-savvy Web surfers, according to Guy Creese, an analyst with Ballardvale Research. “It’s a big mistake to ignore Firefox users,” he says. “They are early adopters and thus keen on trying out new stuff, such as desktop search tools.”

So will we see a repeat of the instant messaging wars, only with desktop search tools this time? That seems unlikely, since people use desktop search tools for finding things, not communicating with other people who are using different, incompatible software. But extending the usability of these kinds of search tools is important; we’re already seeing third party add-ins with Microsoft’s tool, and we’re likely to see more of this for search tools from other companies.
 
One point seems certain: with the amount of bytes a hard drive can hold constantly growing, and the variety and amount of “stuff” that users choose to store on their hard drives growing correspondingly, more of us will see desktop search tools as a necessity for finding everything. And that may be the biggest reason why Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and others recognize that this might be the next big battleground.

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