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Google Desktop Is A Warning To IT: Get Users Desktop Help

Yes, there's a security risk. But IT pros should also be worried about how soon employees will demand slick desktop search.

Google's latest desktop search software, released two weeks ago, brought apocalyptic warnings about the security risks it posed, particularly if employees brought the consumer-oriented application with them to work. Google last week responded to the panic with a test version of its new desktop search software tuned for business environments.

Google's software can help business users find documents and other files on data-crammed desktops, a pressing problem many IT departments just haven't solved. The software also spotlights Google's ambition for the business software market, and all the work it still must do to make a serious dent.

Google Desktop 3 for the Enterprise is a version of the consumer desktop search software Google introduced in 2004, this time with tools for centralized IT control. The beta release came just days after Gartner warned about the risks posed by unmanaged use of the consumer version of Google's desktop search software, and it now recommends that companies switch to the enterprise version.

Girouard's task: Make Google business friendly

Dave Girouard's task: Make Google business friendly

Photo by Eric Millette
Gartner's advice was measured compared with the overreaction in some circles to the security risks posed by the consumer Google Desktop Search. But the uproar reflects the new reality of IT: Users want the same easy-to-use search experience in the workplace they get outside the office, and IT organizations are unprepared to immediately meet those demands. "Innovation happens in the consumer space much more quickly," says Dave Girouard, general manager of Google's enterprise division. "For a lot of reasons, applications that are delivered to users in the consumer space have a much higher degree of focus on the end-user experience." The No. 1 reason: Consumers, especially on the Web, can quickly go elsewhere.

Google Desktop Search works by creating an index of documents, files, past Web searches, Zip files, E-mails, even instant-message strings. Its ability to search a range of content types and software programs using the familiar white Google search page sets it apart from other desktop-search options. It can search AIM, MSN Messenger, and Google Talk instant messages, as well as Outlook, Gmail, Netscape, Thunderbird, and Mozilla E-mails. Another unique feature--and something that sparked the security and privacy worries--is Search Across Computers, new to this version. This feature lets users index local files so they can be searched from any computer with Google Desktop 3 installed, if that computer is logged in to the user's Google account. It requires Google to keep an indexed copy of files on its servers.

The advantages are obvious: People can access files from computers at home or at work. The disadvantage: Employees can put sensitive information at risk, violate corporate policy, and even break the law in regulated industries.

The enterprise edition addresses that concern by givingIT administrators control over Desktop Search's features through support of the Group Policy feature in Windows. (Google Desktop is available only for Windows XP and Windows 2000 SP3+.) That means Search Across Computers, which comes turned off by default, can be disabled by IT administrators. In addition, just as consumer Desktop Search users can prevent certain files or file types from being indexed, so can administrators with the enterprise version. It also can be set to remove documents from search indexes based on the time set in company retention policies.

Businesses Take It Slow
Desktop Searchhas the makings of business-class software, but it'll still be a tough sell to IT shops, many of which guard against employees downloading consumer apps for business use. "We have a locked-down desktop environment so our users can't install their own software," says Edward Jorczyk, global desktop technology manager for international law firm Morrison & Foerster, which has a content-management system that he says meets attorneys' document search needs.

Yet at many companies, employees' needs for better desktop search will be more than IT departments can fend off. Google and Yahoo spend countless hours improving the responsiveness of their search apps by milliseconds, and users get addicted to that kind of performance.

Still, some IT teams think they need to move at a slower pace, even if that frustrates users. "We step carefully and slowly into supporting the adoption of any consumer-oriented packages," Ron Bonig, deputy CIO of George Washington University, says via E-mail. But Bonig is also a realist--he knows faculty and staff are using Google Desktop Search, even as the university decides whether to approve it.

The risks associated with Search Across Computers, which sparked concerns not only from Gartner but also from cyberliberties groups, revolve around the security and privacy implications of having data on Google's servers. Google is fighting a Department of Justice request for a large swath of its data related to Justice's enforcement of online child protection laws. It shows that files stored on Google's servers represent a tempting resource for litigators. But that's equally true for any sort of remote file storage service.

Meantime, Google's competition isn't about to cede the field. Microsoft's Windows Vista, due by year's end, also takes aim at desktop clutter. It will include a new search engine to more quickly find files on a PC's hard drive by typing a keyword from the start menu. Users will be able to tag documents and photos with keywords to help find them later. And a new feature promises to save searches. Also this year, Microsoft plans to add Windows Live Search to its and MSN Web sites to let users search the Web and their PCs simultaneously. Other desktop search vendors include X1 and Copernic.

Autonomy's acquisition of Verity last November is a clear bid for the high end of the search market. Other enterprise players--Convera, Endeca, and Fast--have similar ambitions. But Google's strong brand makes it an appealing partner. IBM offers a Google Desktop for the Enterprise plug-in for its business information platform on WebSphere.

Google's Business Plan
Google Desktop fits with the company's other business search tool, the Google Search Appliance, a hardware-software combination that starts at around $30,000 and lets business users search the Web, intranets, and internal documents. For users of the Appliance, or the Google Mini box aimed at smaller businesses, results from Desktop and Appliance will show up in the search results page.

But Google isn't much help to companies with substantial information assets in structured databases or legacy systems. That's a problem Google hopes to address through a new relationship with BearingPoint. The consulting firm will work with Google to craft custom search software for industries such as aerospace, finance, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications. If BearingPoint can build bridges between Google and enterprise apps such as CRM and ERP, it would make Google's vanilla search system more appealing to companies with special informational needs. BearingPoint isn't Google's first cohort--more than 20 companies are partnering on new ways to apply its technology. Secure Elements, for instance, is trying to help enterprise Google users search structured and unstructured data in their IT systems for security and compliance problems.

Google has many admirers, but plenty of IT pros remain wary about anything with a consumer orientation. "I used to have a boss who said that three guys in a garage can do any IT project in a weekend," George Washington's Bonig says. "But it takes a whole lot more to ensure the product can integrate and play nicely with the other components of the IT architecture, be supportable, upgradeable." That's a reputation Google hasn't yet earned.

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