RealTime IT News

Microsoft Enters Desktop Search Fray

Microsoft officials announced the release of its own desktop search application Monday, hoping to make up Google ground established two months ago.

Desktop search joins the recently released beta version of MSN's Web search functionality and is wrapped in the Redmond, Wash., company's beta version of the MSN Toolbar Suite. The beta program is currently available only in English and in the United States. It also includes a pop-up blocker for users with Internet Explorer 5.5 and above, and a password-protected auto form-filler function.

For now, officials don't plan on releasing a standalone version of the desktop search tool, though multi-language support for the software suite is expected in the early months of 2005.

Nor have officials set a firm date for the release of the final version of the suite, which they suspect will be sometime next year, saying it depends on the feedback the company gets through the beta program.

The company is playing catch-up to Google's own desktop search tool. But whereas Google wants to make the search experience as much like a Web search as possible, Microsoft wants to retain that Windows desktop look-and-feel.

As such, the company also released plug-ins to expand the MSN Toolbar out of Internet Explorer (IE) and onto the desktop. They include the MSN Deskbar for the Windows Desktop, MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Office Outlook and MSN Toolbar for Microsoft Windows Explorer. Officials have also updated the toolbar for IE.

Yusuf Medhi, MSN Information Services and Merchant Platform corporate vice president, said the launch today will put Microsoft's search services in the lead among its competitors.

"We really wanted to take this next effort to the next level and do something that no one's done to date, which is to combine the best of the user experience on the PC and the speed and relevance with what you can do with the Web; no one's really brought those two together," he said. "I know that we have been doing a lot of work to catch up with our Web search beta and we feel like we've done that. To get in the game, this is an area I think where we go beyond."

The MSN desktop search has a leg up on the competition in that the application will index all the text in Outlook e-mails, Outlook contacts, calendar files, Adobe PDF files and PowerPoint files. In some of the files, Medhi said, it will even retrieve the metadata within the files.

For the tool to search e-mails, officials said users need to be running Microsoft Outlook 2000 Service Pack 4 and above with Internet Explorer 5.01 installed, though it doesn't need to be set as the default browser.

Microsoft recommends users have a 500MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and 500MB of hard disk space, though the more files the user has, the more index space will be required. The download is 4.7MB.

After the initial index of the PC's files, the MSN Toolbar will perform periodic sweeps of the hard drive to index new files and only when the computer is idle.

To address privacy concerns, the search tool by default won't scan Web files -- some of which can contain login and password information. This is a departure from the automatic cache indexing performed by default with Google's service. Also, desktop search results will be limited to the administrative rights of the individual doing the search.

When asked at a press conference Monday whether Microsoft officials feel the integrated nature of the Toolbar Suite will make it easier for users to forego the search engines of its competitors, Medhi said it's going to take more effort to make that happen.

"Clearly, we don't think that's enough," he said. "Our ambition for search is to provide the ultimate information tool that can basically answer any question you have. And to do that the investment and time we're making -- we think it's a 10-year plan. It's going to go across all sorts of technology."