Microsoft has joined the desktop search fray with its release of the beta test version of a suite of tools designed to let users find information stored in their PCs.
The new MSN Toolbar Suite is free and available for download at http://beta.toolbar.msn.com/. In addition to an updated version of the MSN Toolbar for conducting web searches using the company's Internet Explorer browser, the suite includes various toolbars for searching hard drives.
Among the PC files the suite can index and retrieve are calendar items, contacts and e-mail messages from Outlook, as well as Word, Powerpoint files and PDFs. Available now in English, the suite is expected to be released in other languages next year.
"People expect Microsoft to do a fantastic job on client code and searching within Windows and Office, and what we have delivered here… is what people expected of us: the best way to search your PC," said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice-president for the MSN information services and merchant platform division at Microsoft, during a news conference on Monday.
Microsoft's rivals in the online search space - Google, Yahoo, America Online and Ask Jeeves - are all highly interested in ruling the desktop search market. Google delivered a beta version of its desktop search tool in October and Yahoo announced last week it plans to launch its own tool next year. Ask Jeeves will offer details of its desktop search tool later this week and AOL will provide desktop searching within a web browser it is developing.
Microsoft believes it will be able to win over users through the tight integration it said the MSN Toolbar Suite has with the Windows environment and applications, which will let users conduct desktop searches within the applications they are familiar with, Mehdi said.
The tool does have some limitations. It does not index e-mail messages stored in Lotus Notes, Mehdi said. The suite indexes some picture files, such as GIFs and Bitmaps, but it was not immediately clear to what extent it indexes other types of multimedia files.
The suite, which works with PCs running either Windows XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 4 and above, indexes about 217 different types of files, including various types of digital music formats, said Adam Sohn, a Microsoft spokesman.
The tool indexes some of the files via their metadata, such as their title, and it also has the ability to fully index the content of other files, providing a deeper search experience, Sohn said. Examples of the latter type of files whose content it can index are Word and PDFs. The browser toolbar for conducting web searches only works with Internet Explorer.
Although Mehdi repeatedly claimed the suite puts Microsoft ahead of its competitors, the perception in the industry is that Microsoft could have locked up this market for itself for years, but left the door open to competitors because the hard drive searching tools within Windows have traditionally been below par.
Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst who has tried both the Google and Microsoft desktop search tools, said they are both fairly intuitive and easy to use. With Yahoo and Ask Jeeves also coming out with their own entries, and with a variety of existing desktop search tools already available from smaller suppliers, this is an area that is quickly becoming commoditised, which is something that plays to Microsoft's advantage, he said.
"The differentiation [among all the products] will not necessarily be their quality, but the suppliers' ability to get them in front of people, and that is where Microsoft excels," Weiner said.
Microsoft can be expected to give users the option of downloading the desktop search suite as often as possible, such as whenever users download upgrades to Internet Explorer or the Windows Media Player, and by promoting it through MSN online services, such as the Hotmail Web mail service, the MSN Spaces Web logging service and the MSN Messenger instant messaging service, Weiner said.
In this way, the desktop search fight may end up resembling the browser wars of several years ago, which Microsoft won even when it started late and was getting routed at the beginning by Netscape, Weiner said. Compounding the matter for Microsoft competitors is that, based on Gartner research, users say they are unlikely to have more than one desktop search tool on their PCs.
Juan Carlos Perez writes for the IDG News Service