Desktop search: who cares?
You almost certainly saw the announcement, or at least the buzz about it:
Microsoft has released the MSN Toolbar
Suite Beta With Desktop Search. This competes, of course, with Google Desktop Search. And now Yahoo! has
they'll be entering the fray with technology licensed from X1. There are other competitors, like Copernic already in this market, too. All in
all, there's been enough buzz over desktop search lately to account for a whole
swarm of bees. But why?
All of these utilities search your local hard drive for information. They
index varying things, but typically it's file contents plus e-mail messages.
Most also integrate Web searching, but frankly, I think that's just a
meaningless checklist point; everyone I know already has a way to search the
Web. The real battle appears to be over who will help you search your own
computer. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons why we're seeing a spate
of excitement about software in this arena:
- The built-in file search in Windows, frankly, stinks. It arbitrarily skips
indexing some files (try searching for content inside of C# code, for example)
without telling you, and it's slow as a snail. And if Windows search is lousy,
Outlook's "Advanced Find" is, well, the sort of poorly-implemented feature that
I personally would be ashamed to ship in software with my name on it.
- People who have been working in the computer field for a long time,
particularly at e-mail driven companies like Microsoft, have piled up so many
files and messages that their filing systems are breaking down and they have to
search for things. So developers are building the tools that they need
themselves. This is fine, if you happen to want to target "developers who've
been working with the same company for ten years" as a market. But there's a
great danger to building the features your team needs and sliding into the
assumption that every man, woman, child, and dog on the planet needs those same
features. Consider, for example, the intranet features of Office, which have
been a great boon to the Office team but which have had little impact in the
- There's a certain amount of chest-thumping, teeth-baring, mindless
competition among the major coporations in our industry. More and more Microsoft
appears to be considering Google to be The Enemy, who must be Denied Mindspace
by Any Means Necessary - or at least by putting out competitive software as
quickly as possible.
- The press will write about any software that comes out with a press release
and a free beta. Oh, wait, that's me.
None of those, I think, is a terribly good reason to believe that desktop
searching software will really turn into the next big thing for your Aunt Mary.
Now personally, I wouldn't be without my copy of X1. A quick look at its
statistics shows that I've got 533,000 e-mail messages, 45,000 attachments, and
159,000 files indexed this morning. But then, I've got upwind of a terabyte of
storage on my home/office network and I've been in this industry for too darned
long. But if you're looking for a big consumer market, I'm not really very
representative - and if you're reading this, you probably aren't either.
I think that the current round of search utilities will end up getting
installed fairly widely, because they're flashy and they're being pushed by big
names. But after that, I suspect most people won't actually use them for much.
Developers will find them useful when the question is "where did I file that
design document that contains the words 'refactor' and 'amplification'?" But
Aunt Mary is more likely to ask "Where's that cute picture of Timmy and the
twins in front of the gazebo?" and discover that all the indexing in the world
won't help her find it until she learns about adding keywords to digital photos.
Call me back when that happens, and perhaps I'll be more excited.
Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.