The search war

A new battle for the desktop is under way. This isn't your old-fashioned Linux or Mac vs. Windows tussle, where arcane issues over operating systems enthrall systems administrators and enthusiasts while boring everyone else to tears. This turf war is about things that matter to end users, which is not necessarily the best news for IT.

The latest salvo in the new desktop skirmish was fired by Google last week when it released Desktop 2, a search program for Windows PCs, and Google Talk, an instant messaging client. By combining those offerings with Gmail, its free e-mail service, Google now is kicking at Microsoft's castle gate, announcing its attack upon, if not actually threatening, Redmond's long rule over the desktop.

Google, of course, is not trying to displace Windows. In fact, it's exploiting Windows to deliver higher-level services that end users desire. These are services that someday may become revenue streams for Google. And you know that just grates on Microsoft.

Desktop 2 is appealing. It improves the lives of information workers by combining the singularity of information on their own machines with the panoply of sources on the World Wide Web in a single search. It delivers the results in one relatively clutter-free window. It's simple, yet amazingly powerful.

Desktop 2 comes with Sidebar, a vertical strip that anchors the side of your PC's display. Within its tiered windows, you get RSS feeds, news stories, e-mail from your Gmail and Outlook accounts, weather reports and other dynamic content. It's slick.

Desktop 2 is not to be confused with Desktop Search for Enterprise, which lacks Sidebar but can index and search everything its junior partner can, as well as content stored in Lotus Notes. The Enterprise version also gives administrators critical tools, such as the ability to define files that aren't permitted to be indexed and to force all indexes on everyone's machines to be encrypted. Google recommends that you do this.

Individuals can download the Enterprise version, just as they can the consumer-oriented Desktop 2, and use it on their own systems. My limited use of both tools leads me to conclude that they, or something very much like them, will become de facto on corporate machines. That's because they are useful and easy to use.

From IT's perspective, though, Desktop 2 and Desktop Search for Enterprise are, at best, more software you'll need to understand, if only for the sake of handling queries from the clueless end users who haunt our Shark Tank each week. At worst, these indexing programs might become another security headache.

I suggest that you get a head start on your end users and quickly roll out Desktop Search for Enterprise, or a comparable desktop search product that also efficiently searches online. (And no, the stupid puppy that comes with Windows XP does not qualify.) If that's not possible, at a minimum set companywide policies for how those tools should be set up. Make encryption mandatory. It does slow down retrieval a bit, particularly when Notes files are being searched, but few end users will complain.

Another problem I foresee for IT is that once users get accustomed to searching their desktop apps along with the Internet for content, they'll be asking for you to use Google's (or whoever's) APIs to include corporate apps in the single-search process. That's more work and another security hole to cover.

Is this potential troublemaker of a tool worth it? Yes, every penny. I did tell you that it's free, right?

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