Search Tools Converge on the Desktop

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May 16, 2005

May 2005 Issue

Note: In print, this appeared as part of our Special Search Focus in which we took an extensive look at the trends in search today, including the sudden flurry of desktop search tool announcements and their viability in the marketplace, the state of multilingual and local search, and a round-up and discussion of a variety of multimedia search tools. Links to other articles are below.

It was not that long ago when PC users were pleading for decent consumer desktop search tools—software that provides a way to search your hard drive the same way you do the Internet. But with the exception of a few companies, nobody seemed to be heeding the call, not even the big names in Internet search: Google, MSN, and Yahoo!. Then suddenly last summer, that all changed, starting with Copernic's release of a free desktop search tool. By the end of last year in flurry of releases, the big three followed with branded offerings. Others, including AOL and Ask, released tools as well. Some developed their own, while others purchased a solution or licensed one from another vendor. But in the course of a few months, we went from a sparsely populated desktop search marketplace to one crowded with solutions.

This article takes a look at some of these tools and explores why they emerged when they did, how vendors may profit from these (mostly free) tools, and how they are addressing privacy concerns related to tools that index your entire hard drive.

The Time Was Right
It may seem that desktop search is suddenly emerging, but Gary Price, an editor at Search Engine Watch, says several companies have introduced products over the years but that none really caught on at the consumer level. "Desktop search is something that's been around for years. Companies like dtSearch and X1 have been around; they were the first ones. Then Copernic desktop search was launched in August and kicked this trend off," Price says.

David Burns, CEO at Copernic (who was the founder and former CEO of Fast Search & Transfer), joined Copernic last July, just prior to the company's release of its desktop search tool. Burns believes that the single biggest factor that contributed to the flurry of desktop search product releases was the looming shadow of Microsoft's next release of Windows, code-named "Longhorn" (which, interestingly, is yet to materialize).

Burns says that every market has an initiator, and in his estimation, this one was the belief that Microsoft would include a more comprehensive search tool in Longhorn. "If Microsoft is going to come out with a way to bundle comprehensive desktop search with Windows, that means that Microsoft is threatening to deploy across 500 million desktops worldwide," Burns says, adding, "and within that product is going to be the opportunity to initiate Web searches."

That, says Burns, is something that is going to get the attention of the other major search engines because Web searches are the bread and butter of these companies. "We've seen this scramble for consolidation and control of the user base before Microsoft comes out and deploys. They are all competing against each other to save their own market share because that is where the fat high margin business is on the Internet—in Web search monetizing key words," Burns says.

But Justin Osmar, product manager for MSN search, says while it is still working on its desktop search product and sharing experiences with other parts of the company, the company is not saying what it will ultimately do with the desktop search tool. "We are sharing our learning across the company. Right now, the plan is to keep it as a stand-alone download for MSN, and we are looking at other ways to include it in other products as another option for people. But for right now it is going to stay the course, and the future distribution model is really yet to be determined," Osmar says.

Bradley Horowitz, director of media and desktop search at Yahoo!, says the company got into desktop search more because of what it was hearing from customers than because of market pressure. "We feel this is an important bit of user functionality, and that's what is motivating us, not a media frenzy or anything else. We recognized that there is a problem in managing personal content," Horowitz says.

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