Thursday, December 28, 2006

Is desktop search over?

In his remarkably detailed review of Windows Vista, Paul Thurrott wrote:
One of the most impressive features in Windows Vista ... is instant search.

Anyone who's struggled with the lousy search functionality in Windows XP or previous Windows versions will be happy to hear that the Vista version is fantastic, delivering near-instantaneous search results while providing the types of advanced features that power users will simply drool over.

Throughout Windows Vista, you will see various search points, all of which are context sensitive.

[For example,] in the right side of the Start Menu ... you can search your ... documents and other data files. As you type a search query in the windows search box, search results begin appearing immediately. The speed at which this happens is pretty impressive ... You can [also] search for applications, ... IE Favorites, email, and other items directly from the Start Menu.
The opportunity for third party desktop search applications like Google Desktop Search only existed because Windows XP desktop search was so pitifully slow.

As I said before, the moment Microsoft corrects this flaw, this opportunity will evaporate, as will the numerous also-ran desktop search apps. It appears Microsoft finally has fixed desktop search in Windows.

Paul's review goes on to say that "Microsoft will work to make instant search more pervasive in [the] future". Integration of search into Windows has long been expected as part of the search war. From a NYT article:
Internet search, according to Microsoft, will increasingly become seamlessly integrated into the Windows desktop operating system, Office productivity software, cellphones powered by Windows, and Xbox video games.

"Search will not be a destination, but it will become a utility" that is more and more "woven into the fabric of all kinds of computing experiences," said Kevin Johnson, co-president of Microsoft's platforms and services division.
And, Bill Gates said something similar over two years ago:
Search is a very pervasive thing. You want to search the Web, you want to search your corporate network, you want to search your local machine, and sometimes you want search to work against multiples of those things.
Now that Microsoft has fixed desktop search, they will integrate search throughout Windows and Windows applications. The easiest and most obvious option for searching will be the search box sitting right in front of you. That box will be powered not by Google or Yahoo, but by Microsoft.

See also my earlier post, "Using the desktop to improve search", where I looked at how several Microsoft Research projects might be used to improve search.

[Paul Thurrott's review found via Joel Spolsky]

Update: Two months later, Mary Jo Foley writes:
One analyst's survey doesn't make a trend. But a Global Equities research analyst said this week that he found "many Vista owners that once used Google's desktop search feature have switched to Microsoft's" desktop search which is built into Windows Vista.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Microsoft hasn't actually painted themselves into a corner by plastering search boxes all over their OS.

On the surface of it, it's a brilliant tactical move on their part that hearkens back to the Microsoft of old: Use the World's Biggest Channel to funnel users to your service. Even if not everyone uses MSN search, some fraction of users will, and you come out ahead. Maybe you still don't top Google, but you do top Yahoo.

Only, thanks to anti-trust in the US, and the fact that the EU is rife with similar sentiment, Microsoft can't just decree that the search default is going to point to them. It has to be something that OEMs can set, which means that the position of the default search engine is up for grabs to the highest bidder.

Suddenly, Microsoft could end up in a position where all Dell PCs ship with Vista having Google as its search default, and all HPs with Yahoo. Given that this is basically all computers sold to end-users (at least in the US), it means that Microsoft could inadvertently start funneling even more search traffic to its competitors. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to me either, especially since Microsoft hasn't won any OEM deals that I'm aware of.

- James

Costas said...

It's worth noting that this is one battle that MS may deserve to win: I was using Google DS ever since it came out, but I've kept trying out the alternatives. At this point, I think Windows DS is ahead of the competition: Copernic still doesn't sort results by rank and Google DS is buggy: it keeps forgetting files, doesn't scan attachments, its index keeps growing and growing, and it doesn't use any of the Windows niceties that WDS does.

About the only good thing going for GDS is the integraion of results into Google result pages; so really, who is abusing/extending their platform here? MS or Google?

Anonymous said...

There are still gaps in Vista's search such as no mention of integration with Office apps like Outlook (searching my mail, contacts, etc.); the only mention I've seen is for the Windows Mail aka Outlook Express. Also, there appears to be no way to create a shared index, though that is sort of an enterprise thing (for example, X1 does this). Finally, it does appear that network drives can be indexed, which is a welcome addition.

I use Copernic for just these reasons: it is the only free desktop search which searches network drives (a more common occurrence even in home setups now that wireless networks are ubiquitous and media servers are shareable in a house) and the only which can search outlook and other data along with files.

Yes, Windows search has sucked forever, so this is a welcome improvement. But its not the end of the desktop search tool, I'm afraid. In addition, my small non-scientific poll showed that none of my pals cared about web integration. As one said, "If I am looking for something on my box, why do I care what Google has about it? And if I am searching Google, why do I want to see my personal results mixed in?"

I've put a collection of posts and reviews of many desktop search tools on my blog; will give you a list of them.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who can't make the search in Vista work at all? I have Vista Ultimate and Office 2007. They both use the MS search but neither actually finds anything ever. "No results found". It says that "items are still being indexed" so I left the computer (IBM T60p) on, logged in, with outlook running for three days to give it a chance to index my 60Gb of files. Still nothing. I tried searching MS for help but the only thing I found was a suggestion to tell Vista to rebuild the indexes. This also failed to help. In desperation I installed Google Desktop and this indexed all my email and files in about one hour. I still can't use the search in Outlook or in Vista and am now forced to use Google for everything.

Am I being stupid? If anyone knows how to fix this please let me know!

Anonymous said...

See this article.

Although it's specifically aimed at getting Outlook 2007 searches working again, I think it would apply to all Vista searches.


Anonymous said...

So what happened? Microsoft has developped the search but there are still numerous Desktop search tools on the market and their number is growing each day. It seems that people still want other search tools, because when there are different types of people there will be different types of search tools. And to finish my little essay I am using lookeen and I'm very happy with it.

Greg Linden said...

Hi, Anonymous. Could you be more specific? Could you point me at evidence that the desktop search market is growing?

I am not aware of anything that shows that, so I would enjoy seeing anything you could point me to.

Anonymous said...

Hey Greg

Well, the article said: „As I said before, the moment Microsoft corrects this flaw, this opportunity will evaporate, as will the numerous also-ran desktop search apps.”
What I understood is that the market can not grow because Microsoft developed the search. But when you type in Desktop search (tool) in google, you will see a lot of new tools which were only made a couple of months or years ago, the one I pointed out (lookeen) was published I think in 2008.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Anonymous, that is interesting. Lookeen appears to be an Outlook plug-in, so it is more about correcting flaws in Outlook search. I'd probably put it closer to Xobni than to Google Desktop Search.

The point I was trying to make in the article is that the market for desktop search got a lot less attractive when Microsoft improved the flaws in theirs. New products might be introduced anyway, but the consumer interest in them will shrink and the market for them falter.

In general, I think fixing a relatively simple and obvious flaw in a Microsoft product is shaky ground on which to build a company. If Microsoft fixes the flaw themselves -- by improving desktop search or Outlook, for example -- the opportunity largely evaporates.