Microsoft Monday debuted a preview of its long-anticipated desktop search as part of a toolbar suite that integrates with Windows, Internet Explorer, and the company's Outlook e-mail client.
The new tools put Microsoft into the race for the title of desktop search champ with rivals Google and Yahoo. Google rolled out its Desktop Search application in early October, while last week, Yahoo promised to release its local search utility next month.
Dubbed "MSN Toolbar Suite," the free-of-charge download includes an updated edition of the already-in-place MSN Toolbar for IE, and two new toolbars accessible from the Windows desktop and Outlook. All three of the toolbars allow searches for both Web-based content as well as wide variety of information stored on the local machine, although the results are not combined into one display, as are results collected by Google Desktop Search.
"We're putting search in a very familiar place," said Yusuf Mehdi, the vice president of Microsoft's MSN division, in a teleconference with reporters Monday morning. "Unlike some other solutions that force you to go to a Web page, we let you search within Windows or Outlook and give you the result. For all intents, it looks like you're searching within Outlook with the new toolbar."
Yusuf also touted his desktop search's file type reach. "We're indexing the broadest set of content of anyone in the [desktop search] business," We're indexing all of e-mail, all of your calendars, contacts, and notes, PDF files, which is a first, as well as GIF and bitmaps."
Google's Desktop Search, which combines Web and local search results on a browser page, currently indexes fewer file types, primarily e-mail messages and Microsoft Office-format documents.
Microsoft executives also stressed the new search tools' privacy features, and noted differences between its model and Google's. "We thought we would move more slowly," said Yusuf, explaining why the search tools weren't indexing browser caches, a trait of Google Desktop Search that has come under fire from some privacy advocates, who say that others can then easily see what Web sites a user has viewed.
Instead, Microsoft's desktop search uses Windows' standard account and authentication schemes to separate one user's search history and index from another's when several people share the same PC.
"Microsoft pays more attention to privacy than almost anyone else," agreed Charlene Li, a principal analyst with Forrester, "in part because they are who they are."
Li, who tracks search technologies for the Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm, gave Microsoft's new search tools a thumbs up, with a caveat or two.
"It's pretty good, and it's very convenient, built into Outlook and on your desktop," said Li, who has been using the preview for several weeks. "But it makes some things more complicated than, say, Google.
"Google may not search as many file types, but it's interface is so simple," she added.
Who has the lead? Microsoft says it does. "Our toolbar suite goes beyond anything available before today," claimed Yusuf.
Li isn't so quick to tag a winner. "Desktop search is so new, it's impossible to say who is in the lead. Both players with products are still in beta, so it's only going to get better," she said.
"Look at what Microsoft's done...it's built toolbars. How hard is it to create a toolbar? A much harder part of the deal is getting the interface right."
MSN Toolbar Suite runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 SP4, and requires IE 5.01 or later. The beta is available now in English only, and can be downloaded from here. Microsoft would not commit to a definitive final release date for the search tools, saying only that it was testing to gather feedback, and hoped to have something ready in the first part of 2005.