Just a few months ago, Windows users who needed something better than Microsoft's clunky search feature to locate e-mail messages or files on their computer had to seek out -- and usually pay for -- third-party software. Now, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has joined Google (GOOG) in providing a free desktop search tool, Yahoo! (YHOO) has announced plans to do the same, and more are on the way.
On Dec. 13 a test version of Microsoft's entry arrived as part of a new MSN Toolbar. This is a critical step in the evolution of local search because the odds are good that the technology will eventually be built into Internet Explorer, perhaps into Windows itself. Yahoo! will make a version of X1, an excellent stand-alone search application, available free of charge in January. And Earthlink will incorporate X1 into the e-mail software it provides to its Internet service subscribers. America Online (TWX) has been rumored to be negotiating with search software maker Copernic, but it says only that desktop search will be part of a new AOL browser that is under development.
For anyone frustrated by the difficulty of finding something among thousands of e-mail messages and files stashed on a typical business or consumer PC, this sudden proliferation of desktop search may end up creating difficult choices. Each of the search programs has its strengths, and it would be a good thing if you could just pick the one that's best for a given job -- the way you might use multiple browsers or e-mail programs. Unfortunately, you can't safely run more than one desktop search program on your computer. These programs, which index the contents of your hard drive, can interfere with one another, meaning none of them will work properly.
THE MICROSOFT OFFERING is part of a new MSN Toolbar including desktop search, Web search, and a pop-up blocker (which duplicates that feature in the latest version of Internet Explorer). There's also a tool that stores personal information, including credit card numbers, and inserts it automatically in the appropriate fields in Web forms. There are quick links to Hotmail, Microsoft Money, and other Microsoft sites as well.
The desktop search itself appears in its own window. It offers options for restricting search to mail, various kinds of documents, music, or pictures. This is a powerful tool, but it comes with a confusing user interface. For example, you have to know that clicking on the "Images" menu item above the box where you enter search terms tells the program to look for pictures on the Web. If you want to search for images on your computer, you have to click "Pictures & Videos" below the box. And an item called "Files" in that upper menu finds terms in file names, but not their contents. Like Google Desktop, MSN lists document titles (or e-mail information such as subject and sender) and a snippet of the body text. An icon to the left of each entry indicates the type of document found.
Not surprisingly, MSN Desktop is especially efficient at searching Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express folders, finding calendar items and contacts as well as messages. Unlike Google, it does not search copies of Web pages stored on your computer, so it does not find messages from Web services such as Hotmail. Although MSN Search claims to examine spreadsheet contents, it was unable to locate text in an Excel file that Google found without trouble. Neither MSN nor Google currently can search the contents of Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files.
While both these programs can be useful, I would give up either for X1, which I have come to depend on since writing about it last spring (BW -- Apr. 26). I use it mainly to search e-mail, and I especially like the way it can cram information on two or three dozen messages into a window. The new version to be supplied by Yahoo features improved performance and a cleaner design. And free sure beats the current $75 price. The choice of a desktop search product really depends on how you plan to use it. It's just a shame you can't run them all.
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By Stephen H. Wildstrom