Friday, October 15, 2004

Life with Google Desktop: A Familiar Interface Takes on Personal Content

The new Google desktop search is somewhat mislabeled. This is not a search tool so much as a full-front assault on the desktop. Best of all from Google's perspective, it's one of the most painless and brainless installations - the embodiment of a "thin desktop". The metaphor for this assault is soothingly familiar: the same browser-based interface used for Google's online searches, with the same online search options integrated into the toolbar. Why not a browser bar widget? Because this is to become the center of your content world, not a sideshow - not to mention that it works swimmingly in non-Microsoft browsers. Hmmm, a theme here. Content is indexed whenever your machine is idle, but can be put on manual pause if need be. Once indexed, searches can scan Microsoft Outlook and the usual standard file types quickly and effectively and return standard-looking Google search results, by default date-sorted and optional relevance sorting. Search results also cluster email threads, which is quite handy. One of the keys to the power of this move is what happens when you click on an email. It does not launch automatically into the native email application - Outlook or whatever - but instead into an interface not unlike that of Google's Gmail service, with a link to view content in Outlook if desired or to send forwards or replies. In other words, from some perspectives there's little reason to visit Outlook as an archival tool once you have Google Desktop installed: it becomes just another file to be searched.

Go to browse the Web and the beauty of Google Desktop deepens. Local results appear at the top of the list of Web results. Seamless presentation of all content of interest to a user. Russell Perkins' comments about the inclusion of Web pages cached on one's PC in local results, which certainly does raise some issues about usage schemes based on limited online access: effective rights management for premium content is long overdue. But in the meantime the need for hundreds of bookmarks goes way down when one can retrieve favorite content with a single search.

Clearly Google has extended the strength of its brand literally overnight from something that helps people with content "out there" to a very personal relationship with content via the Google brand. It's not an all-singing, all-dancing product, but it doesn't have to be to make a huge difference in the content industry. It only has to persuade the millions of people who already trust Google for locating and using content to take the leap of trust to their own content. Leveraging that trust as quickly and effectively as possible with a clean, simple and easy to use tool is probably one of the most remarkable and well-timed uses of corporate goodwill assets that has been seen in a long time. It's at least the equivalent of Microsoft's distribution of the original Internet Explorer browser for free in the face of $70 Netscape downloads, and probably moreso. Microsoft has had its overstuffed applications on our desktops for years and never bothered to come up with a simple and effective search interface that treated everything on one's PC as a world of content instead of a world of software and data. That's understandable, given the now-abandoned plans for its "Longhorn" platform to treat everything on one's PC as part of a sophisticated database. To which Google says: database, schmatabase - just give me a good indexing algorithm and I'll move the world of content. This is the philosophy that has brought content forward from the world of I.T. strangulation to a level of usefulness and ready access that today's users expect.
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