STATE OF THE ART
Published: October 21, 2004
HE modern PC is a marvel, isn't it? Here's a machine that lets an ordinary person with very little training create a new document, check its spelling, dress it up with graphics, send it electronically to someone across the globe - and then save it accidentally into some dark corner of the hard drive, where it will never be seen again.
Of course, every operating system offers a Find command. But the one in Windows is not, ahem, Microsoft's finest work. It requires too many clicks, it asks too many questions, it takes forever, it can't search your e-mail and its results are difficult to interpret. As a final insult, Microsoft endowed the supposedly ultramodern Windows XP with a cartoon dog that appears during the searching, as though to say, "We know this is taking a long time, but hey, watch the puppy!"
Google showed the world what great searching could look like: incredibly fast, blessedly simple, attractively designed. Unfortunately, it could only search the Web. To search your own files, you had to turn, reluctantly, back to Windows and its dog-slow mutt.
No longer. Last week, Google took the wraps off its latest invention: Google Desktop Search. As the name implies, it's software that applies the famous Google search technology to the stuff on your own hard drive. It's free, it's available right now for Windows XP and 2000 (desktop.google.com), and it's terrific.
Like the Windows search program, Google Desktop can find files by name, including photos, music files and so on. But it can also search for words inside your files, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. That's a relief when you can't remember what you named a file, but you do remember what it was about - or when a marauding toddler renamed your doctoral thesis "xggrjpO#$5%////." (Windows offers this feature, too, but it's hard to find, hard to turn on and poorly documented.)
For its final trick, Google Desktop does something so profound it may change the way you think about your PC forever: It can search any Web page you've ever seen, any e-mail message you've opened and the transcript of any instant-message chat you've had.
Why is this such a life-changing feature? Because using a computer these days means being bombarded with far too much information to remember. Google Desktop effectively becomes a sort of aircraft black box for your PC - a photographic memory, as Google puts it. The program can recall any bit of text that ever passed in front of your eyeballs, in a fraction of a second. You don't even have to remember where you read something (e-mail, Web, instant message, document); you have to remember only what it was about.
This feature, as they say in Silicon Valley, is huge.
"All right," you're probably thinking, "down, boy. There's got to be a catch." No, there are no catches. There is, however, quite a long list of footnotes.
For starters, Google Desktop is officially in beta testing, meaning that Google doesn't consider it to be finished. For the moment, its greatest limitation is the list of programs it recognizes. At this point, it can't search Acrobat (PDF) files except by file name. It can't search Web pages you've visited unless Internet Explorer is your browser, chat sessions unless you use AOL Instant Messenger, or e-mail unless you use Outlook or Outlook Express. If you don't use these programs, Google Desktop will seem a lot less essential.
Another consideration: Google Desktop Search is remarkable in the compactness of its code - the entire program fits in a 446-kilobyte download - but installing it requires at least one gigabyte of free hard-drive space. That's because, like similar programs, Google Desktop works by creating what's called an index: a multimegabyte database of the words in all your files. To search vast amounts of material, it needs a healthy swath of space for its index.
Creating its index file isn't what you'd call instantaneous, either. In fact, Google Desktop takes between five hours and all day to build its index. (The instant you start doing work on the PC, the Google indexer immediately backs off. That means your PC never slows down indexing, but it also means that Google Desktop takes longer to index than some of its rivals do.)
Once the index is built, Google maintains it by logging every document and message you open, every Web page you visit and every instant-message session you conduct. Fortunately, Google Desktop's system-tray logo harbors a handy Pause Indexing command, which you can use while you work on something that you'd rather not make searchable (midnight chatters, you know who you are). Like the Snooze button on an alarm clock, it offers to resume indexing every 15 minutes, so you don't forget.
You can fire up Google Desktop for a search in either of two ways. First, you can double-click on its system-tray icon. In a moment, you find yourself in your Web browser, confronting what looks at first like Google.com. But if you type in a search phrase and click on Search Desktop, you get a tidy list of matching items, each identified with a little icon. (When the match is a Web page you've visited, you actually see a miniature picture of it.)
You can click on anything in the results list to open the corresponding file, message, Web page or transcript. The process looks and feels like a standard Google search, a comfortable familiarity that means you have little new to learn.
The other way to use Google Desktop is a little freakier. Whenever you use the regular Google to search the Web, the results list includes a new link that says, "78 more results found on your computer." In other words, whenever you conduct a Google search, your query is sent simultaneously to Google (to search online) and to Google Desktop (to search your PC), for your convenience.
However disconcerting it may be to see results from the Web and from your own computer in such close proximity, Google says that your desktop-only queries and their results are never sent to Google; the fact that Google Desktop does not require an Internet connection supports that assertion.
Speaking of privacy, you can also turn off any of the searchable item types. If, for example, you'd rather not make your Web-surfing sessions available for searching by other family members, turn off that feature. You can also omit only secure Web pages from the log, so that your banking and stock transactions aren't available for recall. (Even so, corporations should carefully consider the security ramifications of Google Desktop's logging features.)
Now, both Microsoft and Apple have announced that their next operating systems (Windows Longhorn in 2006 and Mac OS X Tiger in 2005) will include tools promising the same kind of speedy system-wide searches as Google Desktop; clearly, the Ph.D.'s at Google weren't alone in recognizing that today's searching programs don't cut it.
But already, Google Desktop Search has many rivals. Lookout (www.lookoutsoft.com), for example, is a free- add-on for Microsoft Outlook that can search not only your e-mail but also your address book, calendar, e-mail attachments and even files on your hard drive. Microsoft liked it so much that it bought the company.
There's more power and flexibility to be had in programs like Blinkx (www.blinkx.com, free), Lycos Hotbot Desktop (www.hotbot.com/tools, free), Enfish (www.enfish.com, $50 and $200) and DT Search (www
.dtsearch.com, $200). For example, these programs can search more kinds of files than Google Desktop. Whereas Google searches only your main (C:) hard drive, its rivals can search secondary drives and removable disks (like CD's), and the expensive ones can even search other computers on your network. Most come in free trial versions, so if you're Google-phobic, by all means give them a shot.
You'll learn from the experiment, though: with great power comes great interface clutter. Few of those rivals can touch the familiarity, speed and simplicity of Google Desktop, and they don't offer Google's delicious photographic-memory feature. If you use Windows XP or 2000 - and especially if you use Outlook, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer or AOL Instant Messenger - download Google Desktop Search. You have nothing to lose but Fido the Time-Killing Windows Dog.