Let me open my kicking the tires of Googles new desktop application by saying that I love desktop search programs like a fat man loves doughnuts.
Although, Im one of those people who file documents and correspondences religiously in directory structures like C:correweek2004manuscripts, I still cant find what I need when I need it, as quickly as Id like. Enter Google Inc.s Google Desktop Search 1.0.
Googles free desktop search application only came out of beta on Monday with a new release that boasts better security, support for popular open-source programs and an open SDK (software development kit) that enables programmers to add non-supported file types to the programs search range.
For me, though, theyve already taken care of the most important programs by adding support for Adobe Acrobat PDFs; e-mail from Mozilla, Mozilla Thunderbird and Netscape; and recently viewed Web pages from the Firefox, Mozilla and Netscape browsers.
The program already had support for Microsoft Office 2000 and higher applications like Excel, Word and Outlook and for AIM, the AOL Instant Messenger client. Google Desktop also now indexes video, images and audio metadata, such as title and artist.
Unfortunately, it still runs only on Windows. To be precise, you need XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 and above. You cant run it on Linux or Mac OS systems. Google may—note, I say may—eventually port it to those platforms.
Installing it is a snap … if you have administrator privileges. Without them, youll be unable to install, or for that matter, use the program successfully. Only users who also have administrator privileges can use Google Desktop, so on a typical business PC with multiple users, only managers can access Desktop.
The program will take up a minimum of 500MB of available disk space and requires a minimum of 128MB of RAM and a 400MHz Pentium processor. The free download itself is only a mere 700KB, so even modem users will have no trouble getting a copy.
That 500MB is a misleading number though. When Google Desktop indexes your files it also creates a cache with copies of your original files. Thus, if, like me, you have hundreds of megabytes of files, you can multiply your total data file storage by two to get an idea how much space Desktop will end up taking over.
In todays world, where 80GB drives are commonplace, that may not matter much. But if you have an older machine with a smaller drive, Google Desktop might end up giving you an unexpected surprise.
And, indeed, if you think about it, that cache might already pose an unexpected and unpleasant security surprise. Google Desktop not only makes it childs play for anyone who sits at your PC to read your e-mail, but it also makes it possible for a snoop at your desk to read your e-mail or what-have-you after youve deleted it.
By default, Desktop doesnt delete anything … ever. When you click the link to the “live” version a file that has been deleted, youll get an error message. But you can still get to a copy of it, by clicking on its “cached” link.
Google Desktop also makes it hard to delete items from its cache. You must click “Remove items” on the Google Desktop Search results page and then check the boxes next to the files you want to toss.
Its far easier to decide upfront what you dont want Google Desktop to search on and then set your Search preferences so that those directories or Web sites arent indexed and cached in the first place.
If you realize that you really, really dont want hundreds or thousands of messages, Web pages or documents youve read or written since you installed Google Desktop to be available, your best move is to simply uninstall Desktop. Just make sure that the box next to “Keep my index” is unchecked, or it wont do you any good.
Once youve decided what you want to be searchable and what you dont, you can reinstall the program. Then, using your new rules, it will create a new index without any of the troublesome files.
For added local security, you can avail yourself of Desktops improved security features: options to not search password-protected Office documents and secure Web pages (HTTPS). You can also set other Web pages that may not be SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protected—for example, Yahoo Mail in standard mode—so that such pages wont be searchable.
Now, as far as remote access goes, Google Desktop, as my colleague Larry Seltzer points out, is actually quite secure. The simple answer to securing your system locally is to simply make sure that you lock your desktop or turn off your machine when you walk away from it.
Personally, I keep a very close eye on my computers, so Im not worried about someone hopping into my chair to read my budget spreadsheet. Id rather have the ability to find the information I need when I need it.
Spreading the Search Net
If you want to spread the programs search net even farther than your local PC, youll need to do some registry editing. As it is, Google Desktop will search only your local drives and files on network drives that you create while Desktop is running.
Wherever your information is, make no mistake about it, Google Desktop will get it for you in a hurry.
Im running it on my main Windows desktop system, a Gateway 503GR tower with a 3GHz Pentium IV, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB Serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment). I had most of my files drive indexed in the same time it took me to write this story. Yes, thats a fast machine, but there was also more than 40GB of files, and I was also using the PC for multiple other tasks at the same time.
By including Thunderbird e-mail and Firefox Web pages, my e-mail and browser clients of choice, Google Desktop has made my life a lot easier. In particular, while I like Thunderbird, its sorting and search mechanisms are … well … to be kind, both are sorely in need of improvement.
Even if Thunderbirds search were better though, it would have a way to go to match Google Desktops abilities. For instance, with e-mail, you can search on the Subject, To, From, cc and bcc fields. So, say I wanted to search for all messages from my boss with the subject of promotion. I just enter:
And Im done.
As someone who gets hundreds of real—not spam—e-mail messages a day, this isnt just handy, its a lifesaver.
As you would expect in a Google product, Google Desktop also includes a full range of search features.
You can search by exact phrase. So a search on “Chicago Cubs,” for instance, would only find references to the baseball team rather than articles about bear cubs at a zoo in Chicago.
You can also use the “not” operator. For instance, the search
“Major League Baseball” –Yankees
would only turn up files with the phrase “major league baseball” with no mention of the Yankees.
In addition, theres a useful filetype operator. With it, you can make sure that you only search for a particular kind of file. So
would turn up Word documents with the word “Linux” rather than e-mail messages or StarOffice documents.
Speaking of StarOffice, by opening up its API, its now possible to get Desktop to search for formerly not supported file types. Google does this by using plug-ins that expand Desktops search abilities. These are available at its Plug-in page.
Im currently using three of these new plug-ins: Larrys Any Text File Indexer, Larrys Help File Indexer and, the most important from where I sit, Larrys OpenOffice.org and StarOffice Indexer. They work well, and theyre completely transparent to me as a user.
In addition, Google has already made a few other plug-ins available for programs like the mIRC and Trillian Pro IM (instant messaging) clients. I have no doubt that many more such clients will be coming quickly. Myself, Id be pleased if someone would come up with plug-ins for the ancient WordStar word processor, the Pegasus Mail e-mail client and the GAIM IM client.
While its not to everyones taste, I also like Googles integrated interface. With one search, I have access not only to what I have on my PC, but also to whats on the Web. No fuss, no muss, no need to learn another program.
Desktop search has, of course, become a very hot field. Yahoo, Microsofts MSN and Ask Jeeves have all entered it. In addition, old hands at the local search game like Copernic Technologies Inc. are launching new programs.
As competition heats up in this race, you can expect to see improvements in all these programs and Google Desktop. For now, though, Google Desktop is the class of the field.
eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.