To Search or Not to Search: That is the Query

Maybe it's because I have always had more stuff on my PCs than most of my peers, and as such, I have trouble finding things, that I was a very early adopter of desktop search. I really loved a $99 product called QuickFind from a small company named Softscape. I found it so useful that I wrote a review of it in 1998. QuickFind indexed and found all major files you created on your PC. In those days, "networking" meant "dial-up," and my home PC was essentially standalone. PC viruses were almost unheard of. You found worms only in your garden and Trojan horses were the stuff of Greek mythology.

After using QuickFind and writing the aforementioned review, I installed it on a networked PC at work—not a good idea. Soon that PC became unreliable and a Softscape representative had to guide me through PC brain surgery. Sometime later, Softscape changed directions and dropped the QuickFind product line. I don't know whether that was because of incidents like mine or if the market just wasn't ready for desktop search.

Today, the desktop search market is hot. PC hard drive space has increased a thousand-fold. Google has become a common-place verb for searching, and with PCs always connected via broadband or DSL we simply have more to search for. What could be better than a free search appliance? When will mainstream enterprise search vendors like Verity, ISYS, and Autonomy offer free desktop search appliances as well?

These are good questions, and they affect you as well as search vendors who may be losing mindshare to the likes of Google. I sent a series of questions to both desktop and enterprise search vendors about the future of desktop search products and was initially surprised at the deafening silence: only ISYS and Verity responded. Upon reflection, I realized what I was really hearing. Google has captured the minds and hearts of Web searchers, its deep pockets are a threat to traditional search vendors, and free desktop search tools have most enterprise search vendors on the defensive.

Is now the time to download and use free desktop search tools? As of this writing, Google's desktop search tool is a "beta" edition, and is still being fine-tuned. Also, when PC utilities—free and fee-based—interact, it becomes increasingly difficult to get (or provide) help when things break.

Like many of you, I use Google daily and downloaded its earlier free tool, the Internet Explorer Google toolbar, complete with pop-up blocker. The toolbar updates automatically, so you never need to install a newer version. I recently upgraded my Norton Internet Security system (which also blocks pop-up ads), and my Google search bar disappeared. I tried repairing it via Add-Remove Programs in my Windows XP Control Panel, and all I managed to do was hang my system—something that rarely happens. No big deal; I rebooted and downloaded another copy of the Explorer search bar. I believe the interaction with my Norton product is now fixed, although with weekly security updates from Norton and recurring updates from Google, I cannot be sure.

Then there are the complexities of search itself. Search requires indexing files periodically; the more current you want your search to be, the more often you must update the index. Indexes often are at least 20% of the size of all the files you index and tend to succumb to an insidious bloating as you delete files whose index information remains. Although typical PC hard drives are very large, index size can grow to a significant proportion of your free space.

If you use a free desktop search appliance on your work PC, you may receive a deaf ear from the software (or your IT department's) help desk if things go wrong, regardless of what is causing the problem. Verity's Andy Feit says Verity can't talk about desktop search at this time; it has no desktop search tool and won't say if it will. He points out though that many IT departments are locking down their firewalls to reduce the risk of free downloads. If IT locks out the free search downloads, you may find yourself stranded with a search system that you can't update as the supplier fixes bugs. Remember, late last year Google admitted to a serious security flaw in its IE search tool, which it quickly fixed.

Besides Google, ISYS is the only vendor I know that provides both desktop and enterprise search tools. And it has done so since the late '90s. I asked David Haucke, ISYS's Global Marketing manager, if companies should start with desktop search and grow to the enterprise edition. Haucke's response: "It always makes more sense to be tactical in these matters, versus trying to treat it as a strategy that you attempt to impose on a company's staff." But about the free consumer search tools, Haucke also says, "Let your friends be on the bleeding edge."