Google Searches For New Profits

Google doesn't want to be just a search company. It wants to be Information Central. The company's latest offering, Google Desktop 2 Beta, not only allows you to search e-mail and files on your hard disk or the web, but also serves as a focal point for news, reading new e-mail and even viewing pictures.

The program puts Google one step ahead of Microsoft and Yahoo in the battle to become the default search tool for both the web and the desktop. More importantly, it puts Google front and center in Windows PCs, helping to establish the company's dominance not just in the search business but as a nexus of your computing experience. If I worked at Microsoft, I'd be very concerned.

This is Google's second desktop search program. The first one, like current offerings from Microsoft, Yahoo and Copernic, lets users type in one or more words and instantly locates e-mail and files containing the search words. The new version also does that, but it has several additional features.

Google has further enhanced its search capability to locate files and messages, using a new feature called Quick Find. As soon as you start to type, the new search tool starts to narrow down the search. Type F and it will find all files that begin with F. Type FID and you'll narrow it down to those that begin with FID including Fido, Fidel and Fidelity. Keep typing and you keep narrowing down the search.

This is similar to the Spotlight program that Apple offers with its new Tiger operating system. Microsoft has said that it, too, will have a more advanced desktop search function in Vista, its long awaited successor to Windows XP that is due out late next year.

The search box can be programmed to search the web, your computer, news or other Google services, but you can easily override the default. For example, if you've set the default to search the web, you can still have it search your desktop by pressing Ctrl D after you enter a search string. If you type Ctrl N it will search Google News and if you type Ctrl I it will search images. Typical of Google, search is very fast.

The most interesting new part of Google's Desktop 2 is the Sidebar. Sidebar is, by default, a vertical panel on the right side of your screen that displays new email along with news, weather, selected stock quotes, a slideshow of your photos, recently access files and web pages and RSS content.

RSS, which stands for "really simple syndication," is an increasingly popular way to keep up with news and web logs. Instead of visiting the sites, pages with new information pop-up automatically. With most RSS readers you need to subscribe to what is called a "feed" but in typical Google fashion, this program does it differently.

The software looks over your shoulder as you surf the web and tries to figure out your interests based on your behavior. You also have the option of manually subscribing to specific content and - to protect your privacy - you also have the option of turning off the automatic feature so that no record is made of your web surfing. Google says that even if you do let it keep track of your surfing, the company does not store personally identifiable information about users.

In addition to showing up in the Sidebar, links to new content can pop up as an alert to make absolutely sure you know it's there.

The Sidebar can be set to "autohide" and get out of your way if it's taking up too much screen space. You can also turn it off and instead search your PC using a toolbar at the bottom of your screen. Google gives you a number of optional tools that you can add to the Sidebar and is encouraging developers to come up with more add-ins.

After using the program for nearly 24 hours (it became available late Monday night), it's beginning to get a handle on my interests. It knows, for example, that I'm interested in stories from the New York Times, CNET News and CBS News.com. It also knows about some relatively obscure blogs that interest me, not from watching me, but because I manually subscribed to their content.

Still, my jury is still out on whether this feature is any more useful than the many other news readers, such as Newsgator, FeadDemon, SharpReader, My Yahoo and other web sites and programs that handle news subscriptions.

All of them are great ways to locate news that interests you and, even though Google's is more automatic, it actually gives you less control over the content you get to see. Newsgator, for example, not only gives you a great deal of control over your content, it even lets you build a public website to share it with others. You can track my technology news feeds, for example, at http://www.pcanswer.com/technews.htm.

Google's ability to find files on your desktop can be enormously convenient. This feature, which is also available on competing desktop search products, works by creating a key word index of all your files an e-mail including Microsoft Outlook mail, Mozilla Thunderbird and Google's own Gmail service.

Rather than having to remember the names of files or the date on which you received an e-mail, you just search by content. I often find myself wanting to find a message from someone and it's great to be able to locate it instantly by just typing in their name or any word used in the message. For example, I have an upcoming flight on JetBlue and, when I need to remember what time it leaves, I just search for "JetBlue" to locate the company's email with the itinerary.

Based on my preliminary tests, I think Google is now the clear leader when it comes to desktop search. Of course, this is subject to change, especially if Microsoft makes good on its promise to include enhanced desktop searching with the next version of the operating system.

For Mac users, the bad news is that Google Desktop only works on Windows. The good news is that Apple is way ahead of Microsoft when it comes to search tools. Many of Google's features are already built into Apple's Tiger operating system.



A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid