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Product Review: Google Desktop scores with IT pros

Google Desktop Search
Google
Mountain View, Calif.
(650) 623-4000
Download: http://desktop.google.com

 

Google’s foray into desktop searching--a terrain operating system publishers have traditionally owned--has drawn accolades from users who can now enjoy the familiar Google search interface on their PCs. Competing products have come from several contenders in the online-search space, including small development operations (Copernic, Blinkx, X1), market leaders (Yahoo!) and also-rans (Ask Jeeves, Lycos), along with venerable OS publishers (Microsoft, Apple). All hope to grab or retain market share in the new wild west of desktop search.

Although the desktop search target audience seems to be the home user, I have found Google’s Desktop Search technology very useful in my work as application architect and primary technical contact for Java-based CRM apps and financial planning apps at a Fortune 500 company. Given all the data I manage, GDS has proven invaluable. Its ability to search rapidly through Outlook’s e-mail has enabled me to double-check all incoming production support e-mail for duplicates. This has resulted in a measurable reduction in the number of support tickets I need to generate, because I’m able to weed out repeats before logging them.

In addition, my application group keeps a vast store of data on a shared network drive. It took about a week for GDS to index the shared directory on this drive (after first indexing my C: drive). Now that we’ve built the index, I can search through all Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, etc. on that drive, much faster than with a Windows native search. I found the average response time to be less than a second, comparable to Google’s online search speed. GDS allows me to research and access information buried on our shared drive in real-time, a process that used to take hours or even days, depending on the request.

Quick, easy beginnings
Download and installation took just a few minutes over a broadband connection. Once installed, it immediately began indexing my hard-disk files. Although GDS runs as a constant background process, the background indexing process is transparent and non-intrusive, and I haven’t run into any performance or usability problems, unlike other background processes that can become disruptive to your work (such as Symantec’s Norton Friday Morning Antivirus Scan of Death). GDS uses CPU cycles sparingly, and always steps aside when resources are needed for more pertinent matters. There is a Pause Indexing command, which puts indexing on hold for 15 minutes, but I have yet to run into a situation in which I’ve had to use it.

GDS runs as a low-profile HTTPD server on port 4664. This allows GDS’ user interface to mimic Google’s online search interface and allow an integration point with the online service. Implemented as Web pages (Search page, Status, About, and Preferences), the interface benefits from the same clean look and feel as Google’s online services.

Google’s familiar, spare UI is so well known that there’s almost no user learning curve. I love the fact that I can run a quick search of my hard disk simply by popping open a FireFox tab and hitting GDS with a query; the entire process takes less than 5 seconds. Using simple Web pages as a desktop search interface may seem counterintuitive at first—after all, you’re sacrificing the rich functionality available in a desktop app. But after using GDS daily for some time, I appreciate how quickly I can execute a search.

Search options
Only a few options are available on the Preferences page; users can select from a base set of file types they would like GDS to index, and they can specify directories for GDS to ignore.

Search results are separated by type--e-mail, files, chat, Web history--allowing the user to select a group by using links in a navigation bar at the top of the page. Search modifiers appear to work normally in GDS. For instance, a user can search for files containing “private” but not “.java” (“private -.java”), or “~music,” which will turn up files with the word “music” or synonyms of music. GDS can also locate multimedia content, such as images, videos, and mp3 files, by using the filetype: protocol after the search. Unless the filetype flag is used, GDS will return only the file types listed in the Preferences page, such as e-mail, Web history, and chat logs. (For more information on Google’s search modifiers, go to www.google.com/help/ features.html.)

GDS’ index is stored at C:Documents and Settings\%USERNAME%\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Google Desktop Search —though the index files themselves are either encrypted or compiled.
The GDS directory takes up only 180MB, which is impressive considering the results GDS can obtain.

Ideas for newer versions
I’d like to see Google expand GDS’ functionality in future releases to include the ability to search the full range of MS Office and related files (Outlook Calendar/Contacts/Journal, Project, Visio), Adobe PDFs, and alternate productivity suite files (such as those from OpenOffice.org’s products). I’d also like it to search through multimedia files without my having to specify the file type, perhaps by using a segregated interface similar to Google’s online image-search offering. It would also be handy to be able to search my GMail or Orkut accounts via GDS, and create more customized search requests, such as those available in Windows’ search functionality. Google has already committed to making a Macintosh-compatible version of GDS; versions for Linux and Solaris would also be welcome.

Even though it’s a debut version, (the GDS is still in beta), Google has already nailed that sweet spot with features most users are seeking. It’s the perfect upgrade to Windows’ native search. It provides fast, relevant search results on commonly used files, non-greedy indexing, a small footprint and a clean interface. The final release and subsequent versions, and the features they introduce, will only make it better.

PROS & CONS

PROS:
- Able to search rapidly through Outlook’s e-mail
- Once an index is built, search is faster than Windows native search
- Familiar UI without learning curve

CONS:
- Would like ability to search full range of MS Office files
- Would like ability to search multimedia files without having to specify file type

Other Desktop Search Products

Copernic Desktop Search
CDS includes its own search interface and integrates with most major
Web browsers.
Download: www.copernic.com/en/products/desktop-search

Yahoo! Desktop Search
Released in January, Yahoo! Desktop Search takes a similar route as Copernic, with a non-browser interface. www.x1.com/products/xds.html
Download: http://desktop.yahoo.com

MSN Toolbar Suite
MSN's Toolbar Suite installs search bars for Outlook, Windows Explorer, Internet Explorer, and the Desktop taskbar.
Download: http://beta.toolbar.msn.com

Ask Jeeves Desktop Search
Despite its relative failure as a viable online search firm, Ask Jeeves/Teoma published its own desktop search utility.
Download: http://sp.ask.com/docs/desktop

Blinkx Desktop
Currently available only for Windows, Blinkx has a Mac version of its desktop search in the works.
Download: www.blinkx.com/content/mirrors.php

HotBot Desktop
Lycos released its desktop search utility under its HotBot brand as an Internet Explorer plug-in.
Download: www.hotbot.com/tools/desktop

About the Author

Jason Halla is an enterprise J2EE architect with a Fortune 500 company in Indianapolis, and moderator of Devshed's popular Java, PHP and XML forums. He can be reached at drgroove@myway.com.

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