Internet search leader Google Inc. yesterday introduced Google Desktop Search, a free program that creates an index of the files on a user's own computer. The move puts Google a step ahead of rival software titan Microsoft Corp., which plans a similar product for later this year.
"We really aim to make this product a photographic memory for their computer," said Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products for Google in Mountain View, Calif.
Mayer said Google Desktop Search was aimed at helping computer users track thousands of files hidden on today's massive hard drives, not at fending off a competitive threat from Microsoft. But the release of the new software still gives Google a head start.
Google Desktop Search scans the computer's hard drive for a variety of common file formats, such as plain text, Microsoft Office documents, and America Online Instant Messenger chat files. Every word in these files is indexed so that a user can search his own files in much the same way he would search for Web pages on Google. Indeed, Google Desktop Search works from inside the Microsoft browser.
Google Desktop Search is available only for computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system and Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser, but Google said it may develop alternative versions of the software if consumers demand them.
Google officials said that no information from a user's hard drive would be relayed over the Internet and that no advertisements would be displayed during a desktop search.
Google's index of more than four billion Web pages helped make it the world's most popular Internet search site. By selling advertising on the site, tailored to users' search requests, Google became one of the Internet's most successful companies, with 2003 earnings of $106 million on revenues of $961 million. The company's recent initial public stock offering raked in $1.67 billion, and the stock closed yesterday at $142 on the Nasdaq stock market.
Microsoft has planned a series of initiatives to compete with Google, including an overhaul of its own Internet search service. In July, Microsoft acquired Lookout Software LLC, which makes a program to index files on individual computers. In August Microsoft said that it would roll out a desktop search product based on Lookout's technology by the end of the year.
Other companies have launched desktop search products. This spring, Spanish Internet company Terra Lycos introduced a free toolbar product for the Microsoft Web browser with a built in hard drive indexer. Copernic Technologies Inc. of Canada also rolled out a free desktop search program. Apple Computer Inc. has said that it will add upgraded desktop search to the next version of its Mac OS X operating system, code named Tiger.
But Danny Sullivan, editor of the trade journal Search Engine Watch, said that Google Desktop Search has the inside track. "It's just like using Google," said Sullivan, noting that searching is done from within the Web browser, on a page that looks just like the standard Google website. This familiar feel will make Google Desktop Search more attractive to many Web users. "Actually Copernic is superior in so many different ways," said Sullivan, "but the Google tool is so like Google."
Sullivan said that Google's popularity, and its head start, will make it more difficult for Microsoft to gain traction with its own search product. Although he predicted that Microsoft's product will be successful, he added, "they've got a lot of challenge ahead of them."
Microsoft said it was unconcerned that Google and other companies had beaten it to the punch. "We believe that Microsoft and the rest of the industry have only scratched the surface on how search technology can help consumers," said product manager Justin Osmer. "Our focus is on helping consumers get faster, cleaner and easier access to the information they want, not what other companies are doing."
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.