Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Google on Thursday unveiled its first-generation desktop application for searching through personal files and Web history stored locally on a PC, a move that could shake up the landscape of Internet search and raise privacy hackles.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which will report earnings for the first time as a public company next week, has created Google Desktop Search, a thin-client application that lets people retrieve e-mail, Microsoft Office documents, AOL chat logs and a history of Web pages previously viewed, all via a Web browser.
"It's like photographic memory for your computer—if you've seen it before, you should be able to find it," said Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google.
Rumored for months, Google's unveiling of desktop search trumps rivals Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online in the race to integrate Web navigation with PC search and stay on the cutting edge of search technology in people's minds. Desktop search has been earmarked a priority by all the major search engines, but among investors and analysts Microsoft has posed the biggest threat to Google's reign because of its dominance with the Windows operating system.
The software giant has said its long-delayed version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will eventually bring better PC file search to the operating system, although that plan has been delayed. In addition, Microsoft researchers are developing more advanced search tools that could find their way into future products.
Google has "not only beat their rivals to the punch, they've also changed the rules," said Danny Sullivan, a search industry pundit and editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "They're saying, 'We're not making search part of the operating system, we're making the desktop part of Google.'"
"There will be privacy concerns because the tool's so close to you. Anything you do on your desktop will be recorded," said Charlene Li, an analyst at market research firm Forrester Research.
Google began building the application last October with a team of about 12 engineers and senior research scientist Steve Lawrence, formerly with NEC Research Institute, as the project's lead developer. It issued a private beta test in February among staff and family. On Thursday, the company introduced a public beta to elicit comments on the software.
How it works
To use Google's desktop application, people download the file, which is a thin 400K, or about half the size of its toolbar application. (Users must have 128MB of memory installed on their PC, but the application uses only about 8MB.) The software then scans the hard drive in the background to index the full text of Word, Outlook e-mail, Excel files, text files, AOL chat logs, and saved Web pages from Internet Explorer—a process that typically takes between five and six hours. Then as the application runs, it indexes new documents and visited Web pages in real time.
(People using Firefox and other browsers will not be able to record their Web history using the application.)
Google Desktop is then seamlessly integrated with the Web browser; people with the software will see an extra tab for "desktop" when they visit Google.com. When a term such as "sailboat" is typed in the search box, Google will return a list of Web results and a set of desktop results at the top of the page, earmarked with a new logo that's like a multicolored Olympic ring.
Under the desktop results, Google might show a previously viewed Web page on sailboats, an e-mail or AOL instant message mentioning boats, or a Word document. The index might also show a photo or MP3 file that was labeled with the word in it. (For now, Google does not index multimedia text, PDFs, Google's Gmail or other third-party e-mail clients.)
Users can sort desktop results by date or file type. They can also set preferences to block certain files from being indexed or seen in search results.
In recent weeks, Google's rivals have seemingly one-upped the search leader with new personalization and search tools that let people call up Web pages they've seen previously from a virtual archive. Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Amazon.com's A9.com have all unveiled technology for personalizing Web search, in what is essentially a bid to draw closer ties to their visitors.
Now, Google will make the same overture to Web surfers, but with potentially more hooks. Its desktop application will keep a record of Web sites that a person visits, including a log of cached copies of each version of the Web page when it was viewed. This could be a powerful tool for allowing comparisons of previous versions of a Web site with the current page.
In terms of consumer privacy, Google's application rests on the user's PC and does not share indexed data from the desktop with Google, according to the company. What it does do, like most applications, is send a daily "ping" to Google's servers with information on the health of the application (for instance, whether it has crashed) and usage data in aggregate so that Google can tell how people are using features.
The application will give Google new opportunities for advertising in the future, however. Google's Mayer said that for now, the company will not tie text ads to personal information viewed on the desktop results pages, but it may explore such avenues eventually. Google will display texts ads adjacent to search results like it typically does. A residual effect of the service, she said, could be that people use Google search more often and therefore that will boost its ad pages.
First to market
With its desktop-search software, Google will soon have several heavy-hitting rivals. America Online this week has been rumored to be preparing a desktop search application. Yahoo executives have previously said that they plan to introduce a similar service. And Ask Jeeves said recently that it will unveil its own tool in the fourth quarter of 2004.
Google's also coming up against several smaller players with established products. X1, Copernic, and Vivisimo have all introduced products in this area, with different specialties. X1, for example, caters to professionals by making various e-mail clients, intranet data and more than 250 different file types searchable.
"All this is just going to heighten the need in the marketplace for an enterprise product, which is where the money is," said Robert Goldberg, executive vice president at Idealab, which is funding X1.
Search industry analysts suspect Google's service will be more compelling to people because it combines the Web and the desktop in one place, painlessly.
"Metaphorically, Google's bringing the desktop to people," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said a logical extension of this service down the road would be to add file storage for users, allowing people to back up their hard drive with Google so that they could access documents while traveling. Another extension could be for searching Gmail alone. "It's interesting to watch how that shapes how we think about our computer," he said.