Monday, April 24, 2006

Using the desktop to improve search

The search experience is primitive, one box gazing at us from an HTML form. It hasn't changed much since 1994.

But is it really natural to go to a web browser to find information? Or should information be readily available from the desktop and sensitive to the context of your current task?

I expect we some day will see information retrieval become a natural part of workflow. Search will be integrated into the desktop.

Tasks will become more of a collaborative process. Your focus will remain on your task, but the computer will become your assistant, bringing relevant information closer to you should you need to reach for it.

Microsoft Researcher Susan Dumais recently said:
We can make it easier for [people] to get results without leaving the application they're in ... Search is not the end goal. We want to show people results in context and help them integrate those results into whatever they're doing.
With their control of the desktop, Microsoft is in an ideal position to drive toward this future.

At Microsoft Research, the Stuff I've Seen project seeks to allow rapid access to any information you have seen before on your computer. Implicit Query tries to surface relevant information on your desktop without an explicit search. Search personalization targets search results using additional data about the user and the context of the search. Priorities and The Scope intend to focus your attention on important information and avoid unnecessary interruptions. Scalable Fabric and Data Mountain offer task-focused advanced user interfaces for managing your information and work, interfaces that are impossible to reproduce in a web browser.

If these can be combined, refined, finished, and moved into the Windows desktop, Microsoft may be able to build a task-focused, advanced user interface that organizes your information, pays attention to what you are doing to help you find what you need, and surfaces additional information and alerts only when it is important and relevant.

It would be an experience impossible to reproduce in a web browser, a jump beyond the 1994, one-box search interface we still live with today.


Scott said...

While these projects sound neat, I have doubts that Microsoft will be able to execute on them. I think the main challenge they face is that they have too many masters to serve. There's corporate customers, power users (techno nerds like myself (and I assume you)), and computer novices ("normal folks") like my brother, my parents, my neighbors, etc.

I think it will be too hard to create a UI that satisfies each of these customers. My bet is that it will be of little use for anyone but the most green of computer users. Maybe I'm just cynical, but when I hear about these projects I can't help but think of the Microsoft Paperclip, asking me if I want help doing X, and then doing a little paperclip dance.

Greg Linden said...

Great point, Scott. I too wonder about Microsoft's ability to execute. Insightful point on the paralysis caused by having too many masters.

I was wondering if my post would give people nightmarish visions of the Paperclip. The Paperclip certainly was a disaster, one that may have set back development of intelligent user interfaces for years. Sad to see what could be a good idea ruined by such a poor implementation.

jeff.dalton said...

Hi Greg,

I started writing my reply to your post and it got longer and longer -- so I turned it into a full-blown post, "Desktop Search Is Dead, Long Live Desktop Search."

I disagree that desktop search is the future. Instead, I think that more of our tasks will migrate towards the web and that search enabled web services are the future. They will likely support the type of implicity queries you describe.

MS and Google will skip a generation and instead focus resources on developing these web-based services. Implicit queries and more push-oriented systems will very likely start to make appearances in these systems.

Better desktop search may be an intermediate step, such as Mac OS X and "Spotlight." However, file and application metadata on desktop files are very unreliable and is a major barrier to improving desktop search. (I go into more depth in my full post). Windows Live and Google's services won't suffer from these problems.

Perhaps I am far too optimistic -- we are still a long way from that vision. However, is it worth investing significant resources in legacy platforms? Instead, it would make more sense to invest in these features for the next generation platform in order to provide compelling features and drive user adoption.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Jeff. Great points in your detailed and thoughtful post.

Much of this comes down to a battle between the thick and thin client. Does most work move to the browser and the network? Or does most stay on the desktop and PC?

Microsoft has a vested interest in the thick client and has promoted it actively.

Many have pushed for thin clients before and failed. The latest push appears to be coming from Google.

I admit I am not sure which way this will turn out. I cheer for the upstart challenger Google, but I am wary of the lessons of the past.

Whoever ultimately wins, this one will be interesting to watch.

jeff.dalton said...

Greg, I agree. It's thin vs. thick. However, for applications such as word processing (word), presentations (ppt), e-mail, etc... I think we are seeing an increasingly "thin" trend.

As you said, we see it in Google with GCalendar, Gmail, Writely, etc... However, I see Microsoft changing its policy here, at least to some extent. Have you read Ray Ozzie's Memo (and Bill Gates' cover letter)?

Ozzie writes, "At work, at home, in a hotel, at school or in a coffee shop, the networked laptop has
become our ‘virtual office’ where we file our information and interact with others...But for all our great progress, our efforts have not always led to the degree that perhaps they could have. We
should’ve been leaders with all our web properties in harnessing the potential of AJAX, following our pioneering work in OWA."

Microsoft recognizes a lost opportunity and recognizes that Google has become a leader. I see their focus shifting to the thin client services model in their next-next gen platforms. This is illsutrated in Ozzie's conclusion: "As we begin planning the next waves of innovation – such as those beyond Vista and Office “12” – we will mobilize execution around those plans." Ozzie is clearly biased, after all he ran Groove. Have you seen it? I haven't used it, but it looks like a really awesome suite of of online collaboration tools. It's coming under the MS Office brand, so I think that is telling about MS's direction. We'll see what happens in the post-vista and Office 12 world!