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True Desktop Search


Eric J. Bruno is a consultant in New York who has worked extensively in developing real-time trading and financial applications. Contact him at eric@ericbruno.com.


Before the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, performing searches on desktop computers often involved the familiar DOS command, dir, with the /s command switch. You could, for instance, have searched for all text files on a computer with the dir *.txt /s command. In 1995, with the Web growing rapidly, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) created the AltaVista search site. Used mainly to showcase DEC's Alpha hardware, AltaVista consisted of two main servers—Alta and Vista—which would scour the Web's HTML pages. As a result, AltaVista pioneered many of today's indexing and search standards.

It wasn't long before Yahoo! became a leader in Web search, and, thanks in part to its partnership with Yahoo!, Google soon took the lead. In contrast, the power and popularity of Web searches far exceeded what was available for the desktop. It was more difficult to find information on your computer's hard drive than in the vastness of the global Web. This was the driving factor behind the introduction of desktop search tools, and the ensuing battle (similar to the browser wars of the late '90s) for desktop presence.

Inside Desktop Search

Desktop search tools, such as Google Desktop Search, quietly index all of the content on a computer's hard drive, including the contents of e-mail messages, text files, Web-browser history, Microsoft Office documents, instant message conversations, audio and video files and so on. For example, Google Desktop's preferences page (see Figure 1) lists the different types of files that can be indexed, and lets you specify which ones to include. The contents of the local index file are typically kept private, but are available to local users to locate content on a computer, or even shared network drives.

Figure 1
Google Desktop indexing preferences.

When a desktop search is performed, it's executed against the search engine's index of all content on the local computer (translation: it's fast!). The results of a search using most desktop search tools appear as they do with Web searches. Google Desktop results are broken out by content type (marked by a unique icon on the left), with thumbnail previews provided on the right for applicable results (Figure 2).

[Click image to view at full size]

Figure 2
Google Desktop Search results.


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