Online search-engine leader Google is targeting the computer hard drive with software that promises to scour the clutter of documents, e-mails, instant messages and other stored files.
The free desktop-search program, unveiled Thursday at desktop.google.com, marks Google's latest attempt to become even more indispensable to the millions of people who entrust the company to find virtually anything on the Web.
Google is betting the program will expand its search engine audience and encourage even more online searches than it already processes — a pattern that would yield advertising revenue, the company's main moneymaker.
The program is a not-surprising step into a crucial realm.
Managing infoglut is an increasing challenge for computer users, and the program gives Google a head start on Microsoft Corp., which is working on a similar tool but recently said it would not be ready for the next version of its Windows operating system promised for 2006.
Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products, called the program "the photographic memory of your computer."
"If there's anything you once saw on your computer screen, we think you should be able to find it again quickly," she said.
Although the new program can be used exclusively offline to probe hard drives, Google designed it to meld with the online search engine. Google.com visitors who have new program installed on their computer will see a "desktop" tab above the search engine toolbar and all their search results will include a section devoted to the hard drive in addition to the Web.
"The integration with the search engine is the key to this product and what makes it pretty fantastic," said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who previewed the product.
Leery of raising privacy concerns that have shadowed its recently introduced e-mail service, Google is emphasizing that the desktop search program doesn't provide a peephole into the hard drive, even when the product connects with the online search engine.
"Google does not know what happens when the hard drive is searched," Mayer said.
Pam Dixon, executive director for the World Privacy Forum, said she will withhold judgment until she makes a thorough review. "The key question will be if this thing ever phones home to the mother ship," she said.
There are already desktop search programs such as X1 Search from X1 Technologies of Pasadena, but Google's entry is the first from a household name in high tech.
Besides Microsoft, America Online is also reportedly working on a desktop search program and most industry analysts believe Yahoo will develop something similar.
Google's product can pore through files using Microsoft Office applications and several types of e-mail programs, including Microsoft's Outlook and Hotmail and Yahoo.
"People are going to have to think pretty carefully about this," Li said. "There are some things that you probably don't want indexed on a computer."
By Michael Liedtke