Fast's Desktop Search Platform Comes Gunning For Google

Proliferation of desktop search software also is raising security concerns.
Enterprise search vendor Fast Search & Transfer ASA has designs on your desktop, onscreen real estate that's still hotly contested by the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, not to mention a slew of enterprise search competitors including Autonomy, dtSearch, Intellext, X1 Technologies, and (soon) Verity.

Fast on Monday introduced the Fast Personal Search Platform, software that allows customers to create and deploy -- internally or for external customers -- their own branded, customizable search service that unifies desktop, intranet, and Internet search, while offering access to corporate data stores in customer-relationship-management, sales-force-automation, and enterprise-resource-planning systems.

"We're basically opening up for everyone to be a Google on the desktop," says Ali Riaz, president of Fast.

To put it another way, Fast is offering an opportunity to keep Google off the desktop. "Big corporations came to us and said 'Listen, we want to do something about Google Desktop,'" Riaz explains.

Using Fast PSP, Comcast Corp., for example, could distribute Comcast-branded desktop search capabilities to internal users and to broadband customers. The software could monetize usage through ads or some other way the implementing company saw fit. While Fast didn't name any companies currently developing branded search solutions, the company expects announcements to that effect shortly.

It seems that Google's momentum in the market is making businesses both wary and envious. According to Riaz, companies are looking at Google's advertising profits and wondering why they can't monetize search themselves. "We have a lot of customers who are saying, 'In some way, we compete with Google and in some way we want to own our own brand and own our own eyeballs,'" he says.

Eyeballs and the people behind them, however, may not want to be owned. A company like Comcast might be able to mandate internal use of company-branded search software, but it remains to be seen whether subscribers to its broadband Internet service would be so cooperative.

The popularity of desktop search software is a phenomenon driven by frustration. Computer users are eager for tools to help them manage the torrents of information they deal with on a daily basis. Desktop search software does just that and users have taken to installing it without official IT support.

"The way that desktop search has virally propagated itself through organizations onto everyone's desktops demonstrates that people can't find information," explains IDC analyst Sue Feldman.

Documenting that is something of a challenge. A Google spokeswoman says the company doesn't disclose usage statistics for its search software. Spokespeople from Microsoft and Yahoo didn't respond to requests for comment. Blinkx, which makes desktop search software, counts 1.4 million active users, according to founder and CTO Suranga Chandratillake.

Phil Tower, government systems project manager for The Dow Chemical Co., says finding files can be an issue. "Our ability to find files isn't as good as other aspects of our IT," he says. At the moment, he says, his organization doesn't have a specific policy covering desktop search software and users can and do experiment with it. He reports installing and removing two different desktop-search applications himself. "If you're patient enough, the "Find" command in Windows does the job," he says.

At media-services company Thomson Inc., security architect Ron Ogle notes that while users in his organization often download software without the blessing of IT administrators, he hasn't noticed the spread of desktop search software.

Even if it isn't the plague some suggest, the spread of desktop search software worries many companies because they believe it poses a potential security risk. At CMP Media LLC, which publishes InformationWeek, access to Google Desktop Search is blocked because the software is considered to be a "risky download."

"Consumer requirements for desktop search are quite different from enterprise requirements," Feldman says. "The requirements for security on the desktop are often ignored. The fact that you can aggregate queries from a particular company, outside of that company, does constitute, in my mind anyway, a threat."

Feldman acknowledges that desktop search software can be configured to address security concerns, but she doesn't believe that's sufficient. "You can opt-out," she says, "but that doesn't mean people do."

There's an additional security issue to consider: Desktop search software is dangerous to enterprise search vendors. An October 2004 report by Forrester analyst Charlene Li frames the issue this way: "As consumers adopt Google Desktop Search -- and start using it at work -- corporate IT managers will have less of a need to buy solutions that can search across corporate E-mail and desktops. As a result, enterprise search providers like Autonomy and Verity will be relegated to searching secure corporate networks -- and open the door for Google Search Appliance as a low-cost solution."

Despite concerns about desktop search software, Riaz says IT managers recognize they can't tell people to stop using what's become a critical application without offering an alternative. Providing customers with a way to brand and monetize search for their own benefit might just be a viable one.