It enables people to retrieve E-mail from Outlook and Outlook Express, documents from Microsoft Office, chat sessions from AOL IM, and Web pages viewed with Internet Explorer.
Google Inc. has unveiled its long-anticipated desktop application for searching through files, E-mail, and Web histories on the local PC, beating competitors such as Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. in the bargain.
Google Desktop Search, which can be downloaded free of charge from the company's Labs site, enables people to retrieve E-mail from Outlook and Outlook Express, documents from Microsoft Office apps, chat sessions from AOL Instant Messenger, and Web pages viewed with Internet Explorer.
Once the local hard drive is indexed--a process that can take hours but is done in the background during moments when the PC is idle--users can search for local information by accessing a tool from the Windows taskbar, from the Google toolbar in Internet Explorer, or from the Google URL.
The move by Google into searching personal information had been rumored for months and has been accompanied by similar background chatter from other leading Web search suppliers, such as Yahoo and Microsoft.
"This isn't the first desktop search, not by a long shot," says Gary Price, a search expert with SearchEngineWatch.com, an industry newsletter and Web site. "But Google is first to market among the major players. And frankly, for a lot of people, Google is search."
Google's desktop search is integrated with the familiar Web search, with a new Desktop tab appearing at Google.com, and results culled from a search of the local drive are added to the top of any search through the Web. The local results are displayed at the top of the list, marked with a new logo and tagged with the phrase, "stored on your computer."
One of its key features, Price says, is its ability to search through previously viewed Web pages. Google Desktop Search searches through Internet Explorer's History file and displays matches, including thumbnails of the relevant page in many cases.
"This is one of those old ideas become new again," Price says. "The idea of recording everything goes back to a wonderful paper written in 1945 by Vanover Bush. And it could lead to the idea of a 'virtual desktop' that Google's been talking about for a while, where you can access your personal information from anywhere."
Other search sites, such as Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and Amazon.com's A9 have rolled out during recent months personalization features that let users store view pages, then recall them later. "But Google does this automatically," Price says, a major advantage, "and has them indexed and searchable seconds after you've looked at them."
Unlike Google's yet-to-be-released Gmail, Desktop Search sidesteps privacy issues by not serving ads--"at least not yet," Price says--based on the results from local searches. Advertisements do appear, however, on the combined Web/local results pages retrieved when users type in search strings at Google.com or via the Google toolbar, but those ads are determined by the Web search results, not those from the locally stored information.
"When a user chooses to search simultaneously across his or her computer and Google.com, the computer's content is not made accessible to Google, or to anyone else, without the user's express permission," Google said in a statement. "Users can select what information they want to have searched and easily remove information whenever they want."
Price, however, does have concerns about Desktop Search, particularly in the workplace. "Enterprise users have to realize that now someone could stroll up to their unlocked PC and find out a lot of stuff about them, and find it very quickly."
Users can disable indexing of certain types of local information, such as E-mail messages or chat logs, and instruct Desktop Search not to index files found in specific folders. "But it's not all that easy to set this up," says Price, who adds that this is one of the features that needs work.
Google's business model for reaping financial reward from the new tool is unclear. "I don't know if they have one," Price says. "But I do know that Google is the best company ever--I know that's a strong statement, but it's the best in my memory--in branding and marketing and creating a devotion to their product. This is another way that Google's becoming indispensable to people."
Google Desktop Search is available in an English-only version and runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 SP3 and later.
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