Microsoft may well consider Google to be its primary threat, given how the young but growing upstart is invading one area after another that has long been dominated by the Redmond behemoth: Google Docs, quite unlike Microsoft's Office suite, is completely free. Gmail outperforms Microsoft's Windows Live Hotmail. Even Internet Explorer is being challenged by Google's new Web browser, Chrome, which is joining the ranks of Firefox and Opera.
At least on Windows PCs, when users wish to search for files on their hard drives and other storage devices, Microsoft still maintains a monopoly with its native Search applet, right?
Not exactly. Over the years, many software development firms have written and made available desktop search applications — most if not all of which trounce Microsoft's applet in terms of functionality. Some of the firms possess significant resources for these efforts, including Yahoo, with its own Desktop Search program.
However, most of those products have gone largely unnoticed by the computer press, as well as by the majority of Windows users. For most users — at least those wise enough to use a search tool instead of hunting manually — the Microsoft applet is sufficient for their needs, or they are simply unaware that alternatives exist.
All that may change, now that the battle has been joined by Google, arguably the master of both search functionality and the proliferation of new information-retrieval products.
Google on your Desktop
To try out Google's offering, visit the Google Desktop page. Versions are available for 32-bit Windows Vista and XP, 32- and 64-bit Linux, and Mac OS X version 10.4 or higher. For this article, we will use the Windows version. Clicking the blue installation button on Google's page begins the download of a file, GoogleDesktopSetup.exe, which should be saved somewhere on your PC where you will be able to find it later, to be run.
One might assume that, given Google's strong Internet orientation, that this installation program would not run successfully unless connected to the Internet. But as a standalone, it actually installs just fine without Net access.
After agreeing to the terms of service, you can choose the program features you want. The only nonoptional one is the ability to search through the names of the files on your PC and to launch other applications. You can also search through your files' contents, the email messages in your local email client program, your Web browser's history, and Web pages. You can have Google Desktop display news, email alerts, weather reports, and more. All of these options are enabled by default.
Additional capabilities include setting Google as your Web browser home page and default search engine. You can have it send crash reports and anonymous data to the Google mothership. (How it can do this after a crash, is not explained!)
You can change any of these settings later, after installation is complete. Note also that Google Desktop apparently even helps to protect your PC from malware and phishing attempts, though this is not mentioned during installation.
After a successful install — which should take less than a minute — Google Desktop starts up immediately, taking a portion of your computer's desktop space, on the right side, and resizing all other open applications to make room for itself. It also begins a one-time indexing of your PC's files and folders. It does this in the background, only when you are not using your keyboard or mouse, so as to avoid affecting the responsiveness of your computer when you are trying to work (or goof off).
We've Got Gadgets
The Google Desktop window contains various independent applets known as gadgets. For instance, by default, there are gadgets for an analog clock, the current weather, the latest news, photos, a scratch pad, Web clips, and the stock market.
Hovering your mouse pointer over any one of them displays a menu with three icons for: expanding the gadget onto your desktop, displaying a context menu, and closing the gadget. The context menus for most of the gadgets have an Options menu item, which naturally allows you to modify the settings for that particular gadget.
The sidebar has overall settings, which you can see and change by clicking on the small down-arrow icon that is at the very top of the sidebar, in between the "Add gadgets" icon (a plus sign) and the "Minimize" icon (an underscore). You can enable content indexing, specify types of sources to be searched, add or exclude folders to search, and more. The Google Desktop features page is worth reading.
The settings for the weather gadget makes it possible to add a number of cities to the list. The top one is still the only one shown in the sidebar, but if you expand the weather gadget onto your desktop, the new window shows the current weather for all the cities in your list.
The news panel automatically refreshes every ten or so minutes (there seems to be no exact periodicity to the refreshing). For each story, it displays the headline, the source, and presumably how long ago the article was published. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a way to filter out news areas in which one has no interest. (This was brought to mind when the stories of worldwide financial crises were pushed down by a football game update.) You can only change the edition country, or enable personalized news, which allows you to anonymously share with Google the news that you have discovered online. Sadly, you apparently cannot speed up the story refresh rate.
The photos gadget presents a slideshow of image files found on your computer. You can adjust the layout, the slideshow speed, the local folders in which image files are sought, and even the websites you can use as sources of photos (though probably not the sites that require credit cards!).
Contents of the scratch pad gadget can be saved to disk. The Web clips gadget can display highlights from blogs, news sites, and other online sources. The stock market gadget can show one or more ticks from four different indices or a list a stock symbols you specify. By default, it just shows the DJIA. At first I thought the gadget was malfunctioning, as it displayed a heart-stopping "-504.48". But a quick check online confirmed that the gadget was healthy, unlike the stock markets that day.
To give your other open applications more room, you can minimize the Google Desktop sidebar, or enable its Auto-hide mode, or allow your applications to cover the sidebar. None of these are enabled by default.
Googling Your Own Files
At the bottom of the sidebar is a Google Search entry field. As you type the characters of your search phrase, the field incrementally displays all the partial matches that it has found on your computer. Hitting the Enter key launches your default Web browser to show you the results of the search. Whether the search was done on the Web (the default) or on your PC's files depends upon the setting in the Options of the Quick Search Box, which pops up when you press the Ctrl key twice.
Aside from the handy gadgets, how well does Google Desktop trawl the organizational disaster known as one's file system, and hook the elusive file lurking in the depths? My results indicated that it does an excellent job of finding those files. However, if you have a huge number of files, it can take a long while to index your PC's contents. After several hours my ten partitions were still at 3 percent. Yet for the average PC, indexing should take far less time.
Overall, Google Desktop beats Microsoft's native Search applet handily, which itself is far superior to the manual search-and-give-up missions undertaken by far too many users.
After Google indexed and made searchable an inconceivably large amount of data on the Web, there was no longer any excuse for individuals to not be able to find information on just about any topic, on the innumerable servers that make up the Internet. Now that Google is capable of indexing and searching all of the data on your own "server", even when not connected to the Internet, you have no excuse for not being able to find files and other data that had seemed lost forever.
With Google Desktop, the company continues to morph into the information overlord of the known universe… or at least our little corner of it.